Dmitri Mendeleev

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...the bearded prophet of the snows, the champion of the people. —Daniel Q. Posin (1948)

Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev[1] (1834-1907; MEN-de-LAY-ev) was a Russian scientist, bureaucratic expert, public figure and humanitarian. He is recognized for numerous contributions to the social and economic betterment of Russian society and to the advancement of science, including contributions to chemistry, physical chemistry, physics, chemical engineering, geodesy, metrology, meteorology, aeronautics, mining, manufacturing, agriculture and economics. He is best known for having discovered that ordering the then (1869) known chemical elements, sixty-three in number, according to their increasing atomic weights, revealed a repeated cycle of recurrence of many of their chemical and physical properties — i.e., the properties recurred as functions of the elements' atomic weights[2] — a discovery that permitted him to predict subsequently experimentally-established revised values for the atomic weights of several elements and, audaciously but spectacularly importantly, to predict the subsequently confirmed existence of yet undiscovered elements[3] with atomic weights and properties required to fill in missing elements in an otherwise consistent periodicity in his ordering scheme,[4] a scheme which chemists subsequently referred to as the periodic table of the chemical elements, considering it to reflect a 'law' of chemistry, the periodic law or periodic system (van Spronsen 1969; Mendeleev and Jensen 2002; Saint Petersburg Encyclopedia).

Mendeleev was a driven man. In addition to producing his greatest work-the periodic law and periodic table of the elements-he researched, lectured, and wrote at a ferocious pace. A fine-print list of his published works takes up ten pages. Chemistry was the heart of his work, but he also played a major role in the economic development of Russia by modernizing that nation's weights and measures and through his advocacy of improved mining, manufacturing, agriculture, and trade. He fought ignorance and mysticism by reforming education and opening the sciences to women, and helped found and head the Russian Chemical Society. He habitually worked day and night, keeping himself going with a mixture of drive, determination, and strong Russian tea (Adler 2002).

According to D. I. Mendeleev’s self-examination, four subjects, more than others, have made his name:  Periodic Law, studying physics of gases at low pressure (the gas state equation), the concept of solution as a composition of molecular associates and The Principles of Chemistry.  In fact, Mendeleev’s scientific interests and his creative activity, besides pure chemistry, stretched over such distant fields as industry (17% of his publications are related to this area), economics (14%), metrology (11%), aeronautics (9%) and agriculture (7%). The Periodic Law seems to constitute only a fragment of his heritage....(Dmitriev IS et al. 2010).

Brilliant chemist, first-class physicist, a fruitful researcher in the field of hydrodynamics, meteorology, geology, and in various departments of chemical engineering and other neighboring disciplines of chemistry and physics, deep knowledge of the chemical industry and industry in general, especially Russian, an original thinker in the field of teaching on the economy...who saw and understood the challenges and future of Russia better [than the] representatives of our official authorities (Chugayev 2009).

Introduction: Mendeleev and the significance of the Periodic Law

DMITRI IVANOVITCH MENDELEYEV was a boy who came out of Siberia, traveled westward to Moscow and St. Petersburg to become one of Russia's greatest scientists. It was he who thought so deeply about the universe that he was able to predict the existence of substances which had never before been seen by man. It was he also who taught his country how to win iron from the Urals, coal from the Donetz Basin, oil from the regions of the Caspian Sea. It was he who exalted the realm of pure science and fervently wished that "many could enter its portals." The Russians finally listened to him, and the country grew industrially, scientifically, and moreover, spiritually, for it was Mendeleyev also who championed the rights of human freedom and protected students from the abuses of the Tsar's regime.

Mendeleyev's chart, evolved into the modern form through the work of Moseley, now hangs in almost every chemistry and physics laboratory in the world. Often, through my years of study I have thought of the Russian scientist, but actually I knew little of him. I halfway expected to probe into his life some day, to uncover the facts behind this obscure genius. One day I read of a contest for books on scientific subjects written for the layman. This was the stimulus I had been waiting for. I entered the contest, I read everything I could get hold of on Mendeleyev and by him--there is no full-length biography in English. Most of this I read in Russian, for I was born in Russia, near the Caspian Sea. And I have lived in Siberia also, and come out of there, it almost seems to me, to tell about the bearded prophet of the snows, the champion of the people.

—Daniel Q. Posin (1948)

When, within a few years of the announcement in 1869 of Mendeleev's Periodic Law and ordering scheme of the chemical elements, chemists discovered three new elements (gallium, scandium, germanium), each revealing accord with his prediction of their atomic weights and properties. Likewise chemists soon confirmed his proposed revisions of the atomic weights for certain specified elements, as suggested by his periodic table. Mendeleev's contemporaries worldwide eventually came to recognize his discovery as a natural law of chemistry, one that transcended taxonomy (van Spronsen 1969 pg. ix). They recognized it as a fundamental contribution to our understanding of the nature of physical reality, setting the stage for his successors, notably the 20th century Danish physicist, Niels Bohr, to formulate a theory of atomic structure and its regularities that explained Mendeleev's periodic law, as well certain deviations to it discovered with the ever expanding discovery of new elements, in particular, the rare earth elements (Brush 1996), and notably, the physicist Henry G. J. Moseley, whose work led to refining the periodic law to reflect an ordering by atomic number — the number of protons in the element's nucleus — instead of by atomic weight. Moseley's work and that of his successors, ultimately rationalized Mendeleev's adumbration of the periodicity of properties of the chemical elements, by taking into consideration the dynamic spatial and energy distribution of the elements' electrons, the number for each element equal to the number of protons in its nucleus (Gorin 1996).

As Robert Adler (2002) points out, Mendeleev's periodic law of the chemical elements "gave chemistry three gifts".

  • It organized an otherwise jumble of seemingly disparate elements "into a well-ordered array in which both family traits and similarities to neighbors stood out clearly". That meant chemists no longer had to learn certain basic properties of the elements individually, but could organize the elements in a coherent way into groups with similar types of properties.
  • It gave chemists something importantly new, the power to predict — "he stole from astronomers and physicists the power to predict". Chemists acquired a mantle that mathematical physicists cherished as indication of membership in the society of true scientists.
  • It gave to chemists (and physicists, as it turns out), including Mendeleev, a research agenda, that "something of great importance, something fundamental, must be at work to marshal the elements into such neat ranks and files." (Adler 2002).

As the law of gravity ineluctably evokes the name of Isaac Newton, atomic theory the name of John Dalton, the theory of evolution the name of Charles Darwin, and the theory of relativity the name of Albert Einstein, the periodic law of the chemical elements evokes the name of Dmitri Mendeleev.

  —Mendeleev's degree of dedicated attention to the Periodic Law

According to University of Oxford scientist, Philip J. Stewart:

Apart from updating his textbook and publishing occasional short articles, Mendeleev’s active attention to the periodic system lasted only from January 1869 to December 1871. After that he devoted himself for several years to experiments on the gas laws and a vain search for the ether, leaving it to others to find the elements whose discovery he had predicted. From the late 1870s he did only very intermittent research in the physical sciences, occupying himself with debunking spiritualism, studying aeronautics, advising on the reorganization of higher education, and promoting the industrialization of the Russian economy, even dabbling as an art critic ([Stewart cites:] Gordin 2004). (Stewart 2007)

Mendeleev's life and work and 'world' he lived in

(PD) Drawing:
Mendeleev's birthplace.

As the 17th and last child of his parents, among the 14 who lived long enough to receive a Christian name,[5] Dmitri Mendeleev entered the world on February 8, 1834 (Babaev 2009),[6] in Tobolsk,[7] a city founded in 1587, located in west-central Russia, in the heart of Western Siberia some 8° south of the Arctic Circle,[8] southeast of Moscow (2385 km 1482 mi, by train), south of the confluence of two rivers, the Irtysh and Ob rivers, nearer the confluence of the Irtysh and Tobol rivers, on the bank of the Tobol in the bend of the Irtysh.[9]

Russians during Dmitri Mendeleev's lifetime lived under the absolute rule of tsars, ruling by divine right as the representative of the Christian God.

Dmitri's mother, Maria Dmitrievna Korniliev (1793-1850), belonged to a family that had settled in Tobolsk over a century before Dmitri's birth and that owned a glass-making factory in nearby Aremiziansk where the Mendeleevs' lived, the family having introduced glass-making in Siberia. The Glass Factory, which Maria managed, provided the major economic support for the residents of Aremizansk. Maria looked after the welfare of the village residents, had a church built for them and a school for educating the children. Dmitri's father, Ivan Pavlovitch Mendeleev (1783-1847),[10] [11] [12] had directed the local gymnasium (secondary school), a scholar trained in St. Petersburg, retired early after Dmitri's birth owing to blindness. Both parents apparently doted on Dmitri as their youngest child, instilling a strong sense of morality and passion for knowledge, encouraging his curiosity.

Dmitri received early exposure to science and to chemistry in particular, for as a young boy he spent much time in the glass-factory, observing the various processes of producing, shaping and embedding colors in the glass products, observing and querying Timofei Arkadivitch Stepanov, the chief glass blower at the factory, and Andrei the Chemist who mixed "chemicals into the molten glass and create colors of violet and yellow and deep green in the molten mass " (Posin 1948).

For Mitya [Dmitri's affectionate nickname], the Glass Factory had been a source of constant mystery and adventure. Accompanying his mother on tours of inspection and consultation with workers, he had gazed with fascination upon the exciting work of the skilled craftsmen. Andrei the Old Chemist, though officially assigned only to the task of mixing coloring ingredients and other chemicals, also worked at purifying the silica sand brought in from the distant hillsides...

Mitya loved also to stop in front of the huge furnaces. Inside of these, large stone and clay crucibles were being heated by roaring flames, and inside the crucibles the final glass-forming mixture was slowly melting. More fuel was being added to the firebox below, and the temperature of the molten mass in the crucibles was slowly rising...

Mitya nodded and watched the mass in the crucible nearest the furnace entrance. After the first stage of the operation, the stage in which the mass intermixed and began to react, Mitya now was watching the fusion, the escape of the carbonic acid gas, and the formation of the molten substance. Presently, at the highest temperature, the mass became homogeneous and liquid. Anton the Furnace Man began to lower the temperature by diminishing the fuel and deflecting a portion of the flame...

Then Mitya walked jauntily, with shining exhilarated eyes, past the workmen in the furnace rooms, past the rooms where molds were made for casting glass into various shapes, past the sand rooms piled high with newly arrived silica sand, past rooms with sieves, clay bricks, fire-clay crucibles, tables for rolling glass, hoisting mechanisms, rooms with tremendous supplies of glass panes ready to ship, rooms with long rows of shimmering glass goblets and glass saucers, rooms with colored panes of glass assembled into mosaic combinations. (Posin 1948)

From his earliest boyhood Dmitri showed great interest in the outdoors, learning to love the Russian land. He learned of industry and of applied chemistry through his experiences accompanying his mother frequently on inspection visits to the glass factory, which she managed and eventually became its de facto owner. He learned of chemical elements and compounds and of chemical reactions.

He stood out as a young boy for having a remarkable memory, enabling him to join in adult discussions to supply dates and places and other facts the adults had trouble remembering. He also early showed mathematical ability, performing mental computations for the residents.

He received a boyhood science education of broader scope from his brother-in-law, Bassargin, an educated man who had been exiled to Siberia after taking part, in 1825, in a failed revolt against the Tsar.

Another influence in Dmitri's life was his sister Olga's husband, Bessargin. After being banished to Siberia for his political beliefs as a Russian Decembrist (Dekabrists, a group of literary men who headed a revolution in 1825(4),), Bessargin occupied himself teaching Dmitri the science of the day. (Rumppe and Sixtus 1992)

  Mendeleev studies at the Main Pedagogical Institute, St. Petersburg, 1850-1855

Mendeleev comments on his educational experience at the Main Pedagogical Institute, 1850-1855, beginning at age 16 years:

I myself am indebted to the Central Pedagogical Institute for everything in my development… Let me call attention to the fact that the number of disciplines or Professors in our institute were few as compared of their number in the present-day educational institutions, and therefore many disciplines were common at different departments to such extent that the students specialized in natural sciences and mathematics during first two years studied all the disciplines together… We all remembered well, since we had given at the entrance personal receipts, that we would be teachers, and therefore discussed in detail all future vitally important circumstances and by own mind, and therefore by inward understanding arrived at a decision that, for example, in our circle the preparation to exams was considered somewhat blamable, and although during the term we worked much, during the exams we played cards nights through and looked down on those fellows who were preparing (Dmitriev 2009).

Chronology of events in Mendeleev's life and times



  1. Note: Given name often transliterated also as 'Dimitri', 'Dmitrii', 'Dmitry', and 'Dmitriy'; family name also often transliterated 'Mendeleyev', sometimes 'Mendeleef', and 'Mendeleeff'. The original Russian spelling is Дмитрий Иванович Менделеев.
  2. We now know, largely following the work of the physicist, Henry Gwyn Jeffreys Moseley (Gorin 1996), that the elements' properties recur as functions of their atomic numbers (number of protons in their atomic nuclei), which order slightly differently from that of their atomic weights.
  3. Mendeleev initially predicted the existence of elements he named 'eka-aluminium', 'eka-boron', and 'eka-silicon', the prefix 'eka' from the Sanskrit numeral 'one', referring to a missing element one period away in his version of the periodic table (Colmant 1970). In the modern version of the periodic table, the element gallium, discovered and named some five years following Mendeleev's announcement of his periodic system, satisfies the predictive criteria of Mendeleev's 'eka-aluminium' and lies in the same group (vertical column) as aluminium, one period (horizontal row) ahead of the period where aluminium lies. Similarly, when the element germanium was discovered, it fit in the modern version of the periodic table one period ahead of silicon in the same element group, and its properties matched those Mendeleev predicted for 'eka-silicon'.
  4. Mendeleev waited five years before anyone discovered the first new element among the three whose existence and properties he predicted, an event that began to dispel the early skepticism of those who scoffed at the 'fantasy' of a law of chemistry that relied on undiscovered chemical elements. Even then the confirmation had a shaky start, as the new element, gallium, according to its discoverer, the French chemist, Paul Lecoq de Boisbaudran, had a much different specific gravity than Mendeleev’s theoretical calculations had predicted. Characteristically confident, Mendeleev audaciously proposed that Lecoq arrived at an incorrect value of specific gravity owing to impurities in the sample of the element studied. Lecoq promptly subjected a larger, more rigorously purified sample to analysis, the resulting specific gravity now matching Mendeleev’s predicted value (Strathern 2002). Perhaps, then, not so shaky a start, as the whole event served to call attention to the predictive power of the periodic law Mendeleev had put forward.
  5. Mendeleev's biographers agree on Dmitri's status as last born, but not on how many births preceded him. Paul Strathern (2001) states: "Dmitri Ivanovich Mendelevev was born in Tobolsk in western Siberia, the youngest of fourteen or seventeen children (no one seems to know which)." Eugene V. Babaev (2009) states: "Dmitriy Mendeleev was the 17th (and the last) child in the Mendeleevs' family; 3 children died on their births, and therefore only 14 children got Christian names: Maria (1811- 1826), Olga (1815-1866), Ekaterina (1816-1901), Appolinaria (1822- 1848), Elizaveta (1823-1852), Ivan (1826-1862), Maria jr. (1828- 1911), Pavel (1832-1902), and Dmitriy (1834-1907); five others (to some sources - Victor, Varvara, Nikolay, Varvara jr. and Ilya) died in their childhood." Robert Adler (2002) states: "She [Dmitri's mother] bore fourteen children, eight of whom survived their childhood in Siberia. Dmitri was the youngest and her favorite."
  6. Date given in the Gregorian calendar. Russia did not adopt the Gregorian calendar until 1918. Some sources list Dmitri Mendeleev's birthdate in the Julian calendar, as January 27, 1834.
  7. Some Russian sources give Dmitri Mendeleev’s birthplace as a village of Upper Aremzyany near Tobolsk. See here.
  8. Latitude: 58° 12'; Longitude: 68° 15'.
  9. Tobolsk. From: The People's Encyclopedia of cities and regions of Russia. Google translation of website from Russian.
  10. Dmitri was 14 years old when his father died, 16 years old when his mother died.
  11. Ivan Mendeleev’s surname by birth, Sokolov, changed as a consequence of his business as a horse trader in his youth. “Ivan early became fond of horses and became a dealer, specializing in exchanges. As so readily happens in Russia, Ivan's business gave him a new surname--for "menyat" means "to change," and "delo" means "business"; so that presently Ivan came to be known as "Mendeleyev." And this surname replaced Sokolov.” (Posin 1948)
  12. "…Iwan, came to be called Mendeléeff because early in life he dealt (exchanged) in horses ("mjenu djelatj " = to make an exchange)."


  • Brush SG. (1996) The Reception of Mendeleev's Periodic Law in America and Britain. ISIS 87(4): 595-628.
    • Excerpt: After spending considerable time perusing the crumbling pages of late nineteenth-century chemistry journals and textbooks, I have confirmed the traditional account: Mendeleev's periodic law attracted little attention (at least in America and Britain) until chemists started to discover some of the elements needed to fill gaps in his table and found that their properties were remarkably similar to those he had predicted. The frequency with which the periodic law was mentioned in journals increased sharply after the discovery of gallium; most of that increase was clearly associated with Mendeleev's prediction of the properties of the new element (see Table 1), although in many cases it is difficult to prove a causal relation since the authors do not mention the prediction. By the late 1880s, most textbooks published in the United States and Britain discussed the periodic law to some extent...
  • Chugayev LA. (2009) Dmitry Ivanovich Mendeleyev: Biography of the Russian genius. Ecology and Life. No. 1.
    • Lev Chugayev (1873-1922) - Russian Soviet chemist and biochemist, professor of St. Petersburg Institute of Technology and University of Petersburg. In the field of complex compounds Chugayev created in the Soviet scientific school. LA Chugayev also a writer and biographer of Mendeleev.
  • Colmant PP. (1970) Eka-eka-lead? J. Chem. Educ. 47(11):784.
    • Excerpt: [Mendeleev] had foreseen the designations of the unknown elements ranking below a known one, be it in the first, the second, the third (etc.) following line. This was done by him in the famous article, published simultaneously in Russia and in Germany: "Die periodische Gesetzmassigkeit der Chemischen Elemente" [Annalen der Chemie und Phamacie, VIII, Supplement Band, 1871, pp. 133-2291.] The same article may be found in the collection "Ostwald's Klassiker der Exacten Wissenschaften" Nr 68 (1895). Here is an English translation of the relevant passage in p. 92 of this last book:
      • To avoid introducing into scientific language new denomination for unknown elements, I shall name these by using the name of the nearest inferior analogous element, whether even or odd, and I shall join to it the name of a Sanskrit numeral: eka (one), dvi (two), tri (three), tschatur (four), etc...
  • Dmitriev IS. (2009) D.I.Mendeleev Chronology with His Own Comments Extracted from His Works and Documents. Russian Journal of General Chemistry 79(2):167–183. Original Russian Text: I.S. Dmitriev, 2009, published in Zhurnal Obshchei Khimii, 2009, Vol. 79, No. 2, pp. 177–195.
  • Gorin G. (1996) Mendeleev and Moseley: The Principal Discoverers of the Periodic Law. J. Chem. Educ. 73(6):490-493.
    • Excerpt: As a result of Moseley's work and that of others, the Periodic Law has been modified to state that the properties of the elements are a periodic function of their atomic numbers. This modification is not trivial, and Moseley deserves credit both for doing pertinent experiments and for formulating the correct theoretical interpretation (Van Spronsen 1969 , Chapter 13).
  • Mendeleev DI, Jensen WB. (2002) Mendeleev on the Periodic Law: Selected Writings, 1869-1905. Selected and Edited by William B. Jensen. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc. ISBN 0-486-44571-2. | Table of Contents.
    • Publisher's Description: This is the first English-language collection of Mendeleev's most important writings on the periodic law. Thirteen papers and essays reflect the era corresponding to
      • the initial establishment of the periodic law,
      • the priority disputes and experimental confirmations, and
      • the ultimate acceptance for the law and increasing international recognition for Mendeleev.
  • Morris R. (200x) The Last Sorcerers The Path From Alchemy to the Periodic Table. Washington, D.C.: Joseph Henry Press. ISBN 0-309-08905-0. | PDF download. | Google Books preview.
    • Quote: As the field (chemistry) slowly progressed, another pioneer was to emerge almost 100 years later. Dmitri Mendeleev, an eccentric genius who cut his flowing hair and beard but once a year, sought to answer the most pressing questions that remained to chemists: Why did some elements have properties that resembled those of others? Were there certain natural groups of elements? And, if so, how many, and what elements fit into them? It was Mendeleev who finally addressed all these issues when he constructed the first Periodic Table in the late 1800s. | source of quote.
  • Scerri ER. (2007) Mendeleev. In: The Periodic Table: Its Story and Its Significance.Chapter 4, pp. 101-121. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195305739. | Google Books full-text Chapter 4 online.
    • Excerpt: An important part of this investigation [this chapter] consists of trying to understand Mendeleev's conception of the nature of chemical elements. This issue forms the basis of what is perhaps the most philosophical aspect of the periodic system...
  • Strathern P. (2000) Mendeleyev’s Dream: The Quest for the Elements. New York: St. Martin's Press, Thomas Dunne Books. ISBN 0-312-26204-3 (refers to first U.S. edition, 2001). | Google Books preview.
  • Van Spronsen JW. (1969) The Periodic System of Chemical Elements: A History of the First Hundred Years. Amsterdam: Elsevier. ISBN 0444407766.