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Robert Bunsen
(31 Mar 1811 - 16 Aug 1899)

German chemist who, working with Gustav Kirchoff, expanded the use of analytical spectroscopy and discovered two new elements - caesium and rubidium. He initiated the development of the Bunsen burner, and remains recognized for his many significant contributions to chemical knowledge and techniques.

Robert Bunsen.

Obituary from The American Journal Of Pharmacy (October, 1899).

Died August 16, 1899.

[p.459] The death of Prof. Robert Wilhelm Eberhardt Bunsen, at Heidelberg, August 16th, marks the passing away of the last of the great German chemists of the older school. Liebig, Wöhler, Hofmann, Kopp and Fresenius had all preceded him, and now, at the ripe age of 88, Bunsen, known better by name, at least, to every laboratory student throughout the civilized world, has followed them.

Bunsen was born March 31, 1811, at Göttingen, where his father was a professor of Oriental Literature. His special branches of study at the university were chemistry, physics and zoology. After graduation he continued his studies at Paris, Berlin and Vienna, and in 1833 began his career as lecturer on chemistry at Göttingen. He became a professor of chemistry at the Polytechnic School at Cassel in 1836, removing to Marburg in 1838, to Breslau in 1851, and to Heidelberg in 1852, where the remainder of his fruitful life was spent. How fruitful in results his career was to the science of chemistry a brief review of the most important of his discoveries will show.

His first considerable investigation was that upon alkarsin (fuming liquid of Cadet), in 1833 and following years, which resulted in the discovery of cacodyl and the compounds of arsendimethyl, the first of the organo-metallic radicals, as well as the suggestion on his part of ferric hydrate as the most efficient antidote for arsenic poisoning. In 1838 and 1839 he published studies on the composition [p.460] of the gases of the blast furnace process, which had the very important result of showing their value for fuel, thus pointing out the means of effecting an enormous saving to the ironmaster, as well as of improving his whole process. Incidentally this opened the way for his later studies on gasometric analysis, which branch of investigation he may be said to have created and brought to the highest perfection.


In 1840 came the invention of the Bunsen battery cell, replacing the platinum of the Grove cell by the cheaper element, carbon, as well as gaining in electro-motive force. In this connection we may state that the suggestion for the use of acidified bichromate of potash in the one liquid cell is also said to have been made by Bunsen, although the form in current use is known as the Poggendorf cell. With a large battery of the zinc-carbon cells, Bunsen began, in [p.461] 1844, his studies of the arc light, obtained with different metals volatilized at the electrodes, viewing these colored flames with a prism and noting the characteristic bright lines obtained. This was developed more fully by him in 1859, when, in association with Kirchhoff, he announced the principles of spectrum analysis and invented the spectroscope. Meanwhile he carried out prolonged studies on the electrolytic production of the alkali and alkaline earth metals, obtaining some of them for the first time in a state of purity. In 1861 he announced the discovery of the metals caesium and rubidium as a result of the application of spectroscopic methods of analysis. One of the special benefits conferred upon a chemical world by this great master was the invention of convenient forms of laboratory apparatus. We need only mention the Bunsen burner, the Bunsen battery cell, the Bunsen filter pump for rapid filtration, the spectroscope, and apparatus for gas analysis.

In person, Bunsen was tall and of a swarthy complexion. He had lost the use of one eye by an explosion in connection with his cacodyl research. Bunsen was never married. When a young professor at Marburg he had joined with a young English chemist, Lyon Playfair (afterwards Lord Playfair), in making an elaborate study of the blast furnace process, and for this purpose the two young chemists spent some months in Scotland, living in the house of a wealthy ironmaster. Both were smitten with the daughter of their host, but she became Mrs. Playfair, so Bunsen went back to Germany single, and so he remained to the end. But he became the centre of a circle of devoted friends at Heidelberg, and so remained during more than a generation of active, fruitful life.


Text and image from Samuel P. Sadtler, 'Robert Bunsen', The American Journal of Pharmacy (Oct 1899), 71, 459-461 (source)

See also:

Nature bears long with those who wrong her. She is patient under abuse. But when abuse has gone too far, when the time of reckoning finally comes, she is equally slow to be appeased and to turn away her wrath. (1882) -- Nathaniel Egleston, who was writing then about deforestation, but speaks equally well about the danger of climate change today.
Carl Sagan Thumbnail Carl Sagan: In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) ...(more by Sagan)

Albert Einstein: I used to wonder how it comes about that the electron is negative. Negative-positive—these are perfectly symmetric in physics. There is no reason whatever to prefer one to the other. Then why is the electron negative? I thought about this for a long time and at last all I could think was “It won the fight!” ...(more by Einstein)

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