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Leopold Gmelin
(2 Aug 1788 - 13 Apr 1853)

German chemist who published a prodigious work, his Handbook of Chemistry, which he expanded over a number of years to more than dozen volumes which thoroughly recorded the body of knowledge in chemistry. He coined the names ester and ketone.


Leopold Gmelin

An obituary presented at the Anniversary Meeting of the Chemical Society of London,  read by Col. Philip York, in his Presidential Address (1854)

[p.144] Leopold Gmelin belonged to a family which for four generations had been actively engaged in the pursuit of Chemistry. Johann Georg Gmelin, apothecary at Tübingen, who was born in 1674 and died in 1728, had three sons, all of whom devoted themselves to Chemistry and the allied sciences. Johann Conrad Gmelin (born 1707) was a physician and apothecary at Tübingen; his grandson, Christian Gottlob Gmelin (born 1792), is now Professor of Chemistry at the same place. Johann Georg Gmelin the younger (born 1709) practised as a physician at St. Petersburgh, where he was made Professor of Chemistry and Natural History, but is chiefly [p.145] known by his travels in Siberia (1738 to 1745); he afterwards returned to Tübingen, where he was appointed Professor of Chemistry and Botany, and died in 1755. The third son, Philip Friedrich Gmelin (born 1722), succeeded the last-mentioned in his Professorship, and died at Tübingen in 1768; he was the father of Johann Friedrich Gmelin (born 1748), Professor of Natural History and Botany at Tübingen, and afterwards of Chemistry at Göttingen, and the grandfather of the distinguished man who forms the subject of this notice.

Leopold Gmelin was born at Göttingen on the 2nd of August, 1788. From 1799 to 1804 he attended the Lyceum at Göttingen, and in the summer of 1804, his father’s lectures on Mineralogy. In the autumn of the same year, he went to Tübingen, where he practised chemical manipulation in the pharmaceutical laboratory of his near relation, Dr. Christian Gmelin (the son of Johann Conrad Gmelin, and father of Christian Gottlob Gmelin), and attended Killmeyer’s lectures on Chemistry.

In the autumn of 1805 he returned to Göttingen, where he devoted himself with zeal to all branches of medical science, but especially to Chemistry, for which he attended Stromeyer’ s lectures: he also studied mathematics. After passing a distinguished examination, he went, in the summer of 1809, to Würtemburg, and thence to Switzerland, which he traversed in all directions, hammer in hand. From the autumn of 1809 to Easter 1811 he remained in Tübingen, and then went to Vienna, where he visited the hospitals, and carried out, in Jacquin’s laboratory, the greater part of the experiments which form the basis of his Doctor-dissertation “ On the Black Pigment of the Eye.” He left Vienna in the spring of 1812, and went to Italy, Where he remained till the spring of 18l3,—chiefly at Naples, but for some time also at Rome. The observations and collections made in these journeys supplied the chief material of the chemico-mineralogical investigations which formed the subject of his “ Habilitation-schrift” at Heidelberg.

On his way back to Göttingen, he staid some time at Heidelberg, Where the Professor of Chemistry, George Succow, being then recently dead, Gmelin was encouraged to give lectures on Chemistry. Availing himself of the opportunity thus presented, he obtained the venia docendi in Heidelberg, spent the remainder of the summer at Göttingen, making the necessary preparations for his new duties, and in the autumn of the same year began his career as an academic teacher in Heidelberg, which he afterwards pursued with zeal and success for nearly forty years. Twelve months afterwards he was appointed [p.146] Extraordinary Professor of Chemistry. His celebrated “Handbook of Chemistry” was then already begun. In the autumn of 1814, he went to Paris, and occupied himself chiefly with practical researches in Vauquelin’s laboratory. Two years afterward he won the heart and hand of Luise Maurer, the daughter of a clergyman the neighbourhood of Heidelberg, and thereby laid the foundation of a domestic happiness which continued without interruption to the end of his days. By this marriage, which was blest with three daughters and a son, Gmelin became completely domesticated in Heidelberg; and for the sake of his wife, who was unwilling to quit the beautiful scenes of her home, he even declined the honourable and lucrative appointment of Professor of Chemistry at Berlin, whither he was invited in 1817, to succeed Klaproth, who died in that year. He was soon afterwards made ordinary Professor of Medicine and Chemistry at Heidelberg. Some years afterwards, in 1835, he declined, for similar reasons, an equally honourable and advantageous summons to fill the Chair of Chemistry at Göttingen, preferring to remain in his adopted home, although his emoluments there were much less than they would have been either at Göttingen or at Berlin.

In 1841 he made an excursion to Oldenburg, where his eldest daughter had been some months married, and there, on the 1st of October, he celebrated his “silberne Hochzeit,” the twenty-fifth anniversary of his marriage. His hair had then become grey, but his frame still retained all the vigour of youth.

But he rarely indulged himself with recreations like this journey; indeed, in the latter portion of his life he was so completely engrossed with the gigantic labour of preparing the fourth edition of his “Handbook,” that he became quite neglectful of his health. Often, after many weeks’ untiring exertion in the lecture-room, m the laboratory, and, most of all, at the writing-desk, he would barely allow himself an hour’ s recreation in the twilight for a walk over the neighbouring hills.

In 1848, he had an attack of paralysis, which though it only deprived him for a while of his power of action, nevertheless destroyed the freshness and vigour of his manner. From that time a dark cloud seemed to overshadow him, ready at any moment to discharge the storm. But he still worked at his “Handbook” with untiring assiduity, as shown by the volumes which have since appeared. In 1850 he was again attacked by paralysis, which obliged him to resign his professorial functions. He still, however, remained active in the cause of science, and laboured earnestly at the second volume of the [p.147] “Organic Chemistry,” which he completed in May 1852. But from that time his powers, both mental and bodily, rapidly declined; an insidious disease of the brain was steadily gaining ground , and soon there was nothing left of Leopold Gmelin but the shadow. Even in this state he exhibited the greatest anxiety about the appointment of a worthy successor to his Professorship; and when he heard that Bunsen was to succeed him, his suffering countenance was lighted up with joy, as if he had received a positive assurance of his own recovery. In the spring of 1853 it became evident that his end was approaching, and he died on the 13th of April, in the 65th year of his age.

The most striking feature of Gmelin’s character was his thorough conscientiousness, and the purity and truthfulness of mind thence arising. He was, in the fullest sense of the word, an anima candida, —a man never satisfied with anything that may just pass for truth, but striving earnestly after that which is really true. This principle regulated his scientific inquiries, his conduct as a teacher, and, most of all, his moral and social character. In his scientific researches, he thought only of sciencc,—not of anything external to it. Free from ostentation, and rather keeping in the background than putting himself forward, he never sought for effect or transient display, but only for solid facts and the real progress of knowledge. As a teacher, he exhibited the same absence of display and pretension, and, though not particularly eloquent, he won the confidence of his pupils by the depth and conscientiousness of his teaching, and the paternal solicitude with which he watched their progress.

But it was in his family circle—in the midst of his children and grandchildren—that his character shone forth in all its beauty. His fresh, harmonious, unsophisticated nature, enabled him at once to win the hearts of children; he played with them like one of themselves, was never tired of giving advice and instruction, and showed the greatest delight at any remark or question which exhibited intelligence or desire of knowledge. He felt deeply all the joys and griefs of those who were dear to him; no sacrifice for their sakes was too great; and, while he gave them everything, he exacted nothing for himself. The same kind, truthful spirit and generous sympathy he likewise extended to his friends, among whom were a great number of excellent and distinguished men from all circles of life. Such a man was sure to gain the ready confidence of all who approached him. There was no artificial or assumed manner to separate from that which was real and permanent in him,—no conventional medium to be looked through in order to arrive at his real nature. His politeness, [p.148] which he never laid aside, even in the most familiar household intercourse, was the outpouring of a friendly and benevolent spirit, and required no peculiarity of manner to recommend it; it went hand in hand with the almost excessive modesty which was one of the greatest ornaments of his character.

To the world at large, however, Gmelin is known only by his scientific discoveries and writings. His original researches in Chemistry are numerous; they are all of high character, and as complete as the means of investigation existing at the time of their publication would admit. His Doctor-dissertation, “ On the Black Pigment of the Eye,” was published in 1812 ; his Habillitation-schrift, “On Hauyne and minerals related to it, together with geognostic observations on the mountains of ancient Latium,” in 1814. In 1820, he undertook, in conjunction with Tiedemann, a series of experiments on Digestion; and in 1826 and 1827, these two philosophers published their celebrated research, entitled “Die Verdaunng nach Versuchen.”

But the greatest service which Gmelin rendered to science,—a service in which he surpassed all his predecessors and all his contemporaries,—consists in this:—That he collected and arranged in order all the facts that have been discovered in connection with Chemistry. His “Handbuch der Cheime” stands alone. Other writers on Chemistry have indeed arranged large quantities of material in systematic order; but for completeness and fidelity of collation, and consecutiveness of arrangement, Gmelin’s “ Handbook” is unrivalled. It is quite in accordance with the extraordinary simplicity and truthfulness of his nature, that in this work, as in his other writings, he disdains all ornament of style, and aims at truth alone, which everywhere gushes out towards the reader like water from a rock. In the endeavour to depict with accuracy the almost boundless field of chemical science, he condenses all the known facts in the smallest possible space, but nevertheless contrives to present a complete picture of them. His accurate acquaintance with chemical science in all its breadth and depth, his comprehensive knowledge of languages, his untiring industry, and a tenacity in carrying out a plan once adopted, which shrank from no difficulties, fitted him above all others for carrying out such an undertaking. The wonderful strength of his memory, and a rare power of comprehension and description, enabled him to review in thought a large quantity of material, and mark out its principal divisions, after which he carefully distributed the several fragments of matter in their proper places. Detached and [p.149] long-forgotten observations of other chemists were often indebted to Gmelin for first giving them their true value, inasmuch as he put them in their proper places, and showed their connection with other observations. While other large Manuals of Chemistry,—that of Berzelius for example,—give merely the subjective view which the author takes of the science, stating of the observations of other chemists only so much as he may consider true and valuable, and the consequences which he may be inclined to deduce from them, often in opposition to the opinions of the authors themselves,—Gmelin sets the example of putting together, in a purely objective view, and on the authority of the several investigators, all that has been observed within the domain of Chemistry,—not, indeed, withholding his own opinions, but placing them side by side with those of others, and never suppressing the latter. Other chemical manuals may, indeed, be compared to sketches made by hand, in which the fidelity of representation depends altogether upon the idiosyncrasy of the delineator; but Gmelin’s “Handbook,” in each of its editions, is a Daguerreotype of the science at the time of its appearance, and gives the pith of individual chemical investigations with such fidelity and completeness, as in many cases to enable chemists to dispense with reference to the original memoirs. Moreover, it has often directed attention to deficiencies and contradictions, and thus given rise to new investigations. It has been widely influential in extending an accurate knowledge of Chemistry, not only in Germany, but wherever the science is cultivated. The first edition of this great work, which appeared in 1817-1819, included in a comparatively small space the whole extent of chemical science as then known; the fourth, which was the last prepared by Gmelin himself, was published from 1843 to 1852, and comprehends, in five well-filled volumes, the whole of Inorganic Chemistry, but, unfortunately, only a small part of Organic Chemistry. It is from this edition that the English translation, now in course of publication under the auspices of the Cavendish Society, is made. The additions made by the translator bring the work down to the existing state of chemical science at the time of publication of each volume.


Text from the Presidential Address read by Colonel Philip Yorke to the Anniversary Meeting (30 Mar 1854). Published in the Society’s Proceedings, The Quarterly Journal Of The Chemical Society of London (1855), 7, No. 26, 144-149. (source)


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