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Svante Arrhenius

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Svante Arrhenius (1859-1927) of the Swedish Academy of Science.

1927 Obituary[1]


Few men were so widely popular in the world of science as Professor Svante Arrhenius, director of the Nobel Institute, who died at Stockholm on October 2, in his 68th year. Of the three fathers of the electrolytic dissociation theory, Arrhenius, J. van’t Hoff, who died in Berlin in 1911, and Wilhelm Ostwald, there remains only the third, a professor emeritus of Leipzig University.

Svante Arrhenius was born on February 19, 1859, at Wijk, near Upsala, a son of an engineer of the same name. He studied chemistry and natural science at the University of Upsala, founded in 1477, and famous for its library. Having taken his degree, he proceeded to Riga, where he worked with Ostwald, who soon afterwards went to Leipzig, then to Wurzburg, Gratz, Amsterdam and back to Leipzig, Kohlrausch, Boltzmann and van’t Hoff being his teachers or colleagues. His investigation of electrolytic conductivity began in 1883. That the current was, during electrolysis, carried by ions had been suggested by Faraday, Clausius, and Williamson. Dissociation of salts in solution to a chemically-indeterminable degree had been suggested by Clausius. No chemist or physicist, however, had taught that the dissociation of salts into their ions in aqueous solutions played any important part in chemical reactions. Arrhenius came to tho apparently paradoxical conclusion that the molecular conductivity of a salt in solution increased with increasing dilution, because the number of conducting, i.e., dissociated, molecules increased at the expense of the other molecules; also that all molecules of an electrolyte were conductors at infinite dilution. The evidence rested partly on the experiments of Raoult, on the abnormally great lowering of the freezing point of water by electrolytes in solution. The explanation of this was given in 1886, when van’t Hoff proved that dilute solutions obey the gas laws, and that dissociating sodium chloride, e.g., exerts an increased osmotic pressure in solution because each of the two ions exerts the pressure of one particle of an undissociated salt. The “ wild ionians ” were assailed everywhere, especially by the old school, but their views soon prevailed, though difficulties in connection with concentrated solutions have not quite been overcome yet.

The three fathers of the new theory founded, in 1887, the Zeitschrift fur physikalische Chemie, and physical chemistry became almost synonymous with theoretical chemistry. Arrhenius had several offers of professorships abroad, but he remained at Stockholm, where he had been appointed lecturer in 1891. In 1903 he was awarded the Nobel prize, and, in 1905, he became director of the Physico-Chemical Department of the Nobel Institute, which is subordinate to the Swedish Academy. As such, he came in touch with the leading scientists of all nations; he was elected an honorary member of many foreign academies, and held many honorary degrees. The Royal Society gave him the Davy medal in 1902, and created him a foreign member in 1910 ; he was the Faraday Lecturer of the Chemical Society in 1914. In later years his interests returned once again to biology and the part played by dissociation and membranes in the animal system. His book on immuno-chemistry dates from 1906; in 1915 he wrote another book, Quantitative, Laws in Biological Chemistry. His views on the universe in the course of time, written in Swedish, in 1906, were translated into English under the title, The World in the Making. He there maintained that spontaneous generation was as inadmissible as was perpetual motion. Life had come to this earth by spores from other parts of the universe, on which life had already developed, always from the lowest form. Life was to be as indestructible as matter and energy ; but he saw the difficulty thatl life can apparently be destroyed without giving rise to new life. Of later books of his, we may mention, Destinies of the Stars and Chemistry and Modern Life.

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