Svante August Arrhenius
Swedish physical chemist best known for his theory that electrolytes,
certain substances that dissolve in water to yield a solution that conducts
electricity, are separated, or dissociated, into electrically charged
particles, or ions, even when there is no current flowing through the
solution. In 1903 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.
Arrhenius is said to have taught himself to read at the age of three
and to have become interested in mathematics from watching his father
add columns of figures. He attended the Cathedral School at Uppsala
and went on to the university, where he studied physics, mathematics,
and chemistry. In pursuit of his doctorate he migrated to Stockholm
to work on electrolysis under Erik Edlund. In 1883 he published his
first paper and in May 1884, at Uppsala, defended his doctoral thesis
containing in embryo the dissociation theory.
The thesis was greeted with incredulity and awarded the fourth class,
a bare pass; the university in effect condemned an important and original
thesis. The faculty at Uppsala were skeptical of hypotheses and devoted
to accurate experimental work, while Arrhenius boasted (not quite truly)
that he had never performed an exact experiment in his life; moreover,
his subject fell awkwardly between chemistry and physics. Even to the
sympathetic English physicist Sir Oliver Lodge, who in 1886 described
the theory to the British Association for the Advancement of Science,
Arrhenius seemed sometimes "to indulge in . . . manipulation of
imaginary data," producing "a confusion" from which emerged
so-called theoretical deductions. In reality, Arrhenius had a statistical
sense and an ability to frame formulas to fit his facts, both of which
were rare among chemists of his day. He had prudently sent copies of
his thesis to the most prominent physical chemists of the day, who were
able to understand it; and in August 1884 the German physical chemist
Wilhelm Ostwald went from Riga to Uppsala to offer Arrhenius a post.
He was at once given a lectureship in physical chemistry at Uppsala;
and in 1886 Edlund got him a traveling fellowship from the Swedish Academy
Acceptance of his theory.
Arrhenius spent the period from 1886 to 1890 working with other eminent
scientists--Ostwald at Riga, F.W. Kohlrausch at Wurzburg, Ludwig Boltzmann
at Graz, and Jacobus van't Hoff at Amsterdam. During these years he
refined his theory, which gradually began to win adherents. In 1891
he was offered a chair at Giessen, Ger., where Justus von Liebig, half
a century earlier, had revolutionized the teaching of chemistry; but
he wished to remain in Sweden and obtained a post at the Royal Institute
of Technology in Stockholm. In 1895 he became professor of physics and,
in 1896, rector of the school. Abroad, his reputation stood very high;
but he was not elected to the Swedish Academy of Sciences until 1901,
and even then with strong opposition. In 1902 he received the Davy Medal
of the Royal Society of London, which in 1911 elected him a foreign
member; and in 1903 his own countrymen made amends when he became the
first Swede to be awarded a Nobel Prize.
In 1905 he was offered a chair at the University of Berlin, then the
most eminent position open to an academic chemist. On patriotic grounds,
he refused; and the directorship of the Nobel Institute for Physical
Chemistry at Stockholm was created for him. This gave him ample opportunity
for research and writing, and his later years were contented.
In 1911 he visited the United States to receive the first Willard Gibbs
Medal and to deliver the Silliman Lectures at Yale University, with
the latter published as Theories of Solutions (1912).
Arrhenius was a genial, energetic man who made many friends on his
visits abroad. His memory was excellent, he loved nature, but he was
indifferent to the fine arts and literature. His range of scientific
interests was very wide: over the years, he moved away from the study
of solutions into immunology, where he made pioneering studies on toxins,
and then into geology and cosmology. In Worlds in the Making (1908),
he suggested that cool stars might collide and form nebulae from which
new stars and planets would arise; and so the process would go on indefinitely,
life being spread about the universe by bacteria propelled by light
pressure. These speculations have not found their way into modern cosmology.
Elisabeth Crawford, Arrhenius: From Ionic Theory to the Greenhouse Effect
(1996), recounts his life and career and sets both in the context of
contemporary Swedish society.