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Throughout the history of science, there have been numerous discoveries which have changed the face of the discipline -- perhaps none of them simpler than Dmitri Mendeleev’s invention of the periodic table of elements. After a distinguished career as a professor and government official, he died on February 2, 1907 in St. Petersburg.
Born outside the isolated town of Tobolsk in Siberia, Mendeleev was the last of potentially 17 children. Numbers vary on the family’s size, though it appears there were at least 11 born to Ivan and Maria, his parents. The family struggled financially, particularly when Ivan was no longer able to teach after losing his eyesight. Then things got worse: Ivan passed away and Maria’s attempt to create an income, reopening her family’s dormant glass factory, came to a catastrophic end in a massive fire.
Desperate to give her youngest son a chance in life, Maria moved to St. Petersburg, the large cultural center of northwestern Russia. Once there, the teenaged Mendeleev excelled in the sciences at the Main Pedagogical Institute, then moved to the shores of the Black Sea to teach at a school in Simferopol. While gaining experience at the head of a classroom, Mendeleev fought off tuberculosis so he could return to St. Petersburg. When he made it back in 1857 following the two-year stay in Crimea, he focused his efforts on chemistry.
In order to advance his career, Mendeleev received a temporary appointment to the University of Heidelberg to gain a better understanding of fluid dynamics and the properties of light associated with different compounds, using the knowledge gained in the latter course of study to write a book about the spectroscope. Armed with higher levels of expertise, Mendeleev opted to make St. Petersburg his home for good in 1861, taking a position at the Nikolaev Engineering Institute.
Gaining a reputation for meticulous measurement and exacting standards for research, St. Petersburg Technological Institute and St. Petersburg State University came calling. Mendeleev’s work with alcohol earned him the title of Doctor of Science in 1865, another step in his quest to turn the city into one of the foremost locations for scientific studies in the world. By 1890, when he resigned from the university system in a dispute, his lifetime of experiments made him one of the most-honored scientists of his day, including a Copley Medal from the Royal Society of London.
Throughout the 1860s, Mendeleev toyed with the idea of organizing the known elements using the atomic weight. At least four of his contemporaries were looking for ways to do the same, but what set Mendeleev’s ideas apart was a peculiar bit of theorizing done by the Russian: he used better formulas to calculate relative atomic mass and predicted where undiscovered elements would be and what their properties were with astonishing accuracy. Further, he identified similar characteristics between the various elements -- helium, lithium and sodium, for example -- and grouped them together as a means to highlight levels of reactivity and atomic arrangement.
The “periodic law,” published with the results of Mendeleev’s research in 1869, provided chemists a reliable method for theorizing the results of their experiments. His 17-column design from 1871 was staggeringly correct -- only the discovery of the “noble gases” by John William Strutt and Sir William Ramsey in 1894 would result in a major addition to the table. Though the modern design would not be developed until the mid-20th century, Mendeleev’s legacy was cemented.
Once outside the university system, Mendeleev moved into a government position as the Director of the Bureau of Weights and Measures in 1893. In a bid to impress his ideals of scientific study on the rest of the nation, he implemented the metric system widely and worked diligently to standardize the composition of vodka throughout the countryside. With the petroleum industry well-established near the Black Sea, Mendeleev studied methods for distilling other compounds from the thick black sludge, opening the first true oil refinery in the country.
When he reached the age of 70, Mendeleev received the honor of admission into the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, an achievement many believed to be a precursor to a Nobel Prize. Heated debate among the voting members -- influenced by Svante Arrenhuis, a chemist angered by Mendeleev’s criticism of his ideas -- denied the brilliant Russian scientist the award in 1906. Two months after the ceremony, Mendeleev died at his home in St. Petersburg on February 2, 1907.
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