Famous Chemist: Svante Arrhenius

    Svante Arrhenius (19 Feb. 1859 – 2 Oct. 1927) was a Swedish scientist that began his work as a physicist, but is often referred to as a chemist.            

    Even from a very young age, Arrhenius showed himself to be an exceptionally gifted individual—at the age of three years old, he taught himself to read without any encouragement from his parents, and he became a child prodigy in the field of mathematics by watching his father add numbers together in his accounting books.           

    He began his formal education in the local cathedral school when he was eight years old, but chose to start in fifth grade rather than first. But he was undaunted in his position—he distinguished himself in physics and mathematics and graduated at 17 years old as the youngest (and most able) student in his class.            

    At the University of Uppsala (where his father had been a land surveyor for a number of years), Arrhenius was unsatisfied with the chief physics instructor—a man named Per Teodor Cleve (who was also the only member of the faculty who could have supervised him in chemistry)—so he decided to leave and study at the Physical Institute of the Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm (under the physicist Erik Edlund) in 1881. In 1884, he submitted a 150-page dissertation on electrolytic conductivity (which he had been working on and researching for those three years) for his doctorate, but he was only granted a third-class degree after all of his effort. However, it would be extensions of this very work that would someday earn him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.            

    The primary idea behind Arrhenius’ dissertation was that, contrary to the beliefs of Michael Faraday (who had coined the term “ion” many years before and believed that ions were produced in the process of electrolysis), salts dissociate into charged particles when forming a solution even without the presence of an electric current. Thus, he proposed that all reactions in solution were reactions between ions.            

    In an extension to this theory, Arrhenius suggested definitions for acids and bases (also in 1884). Acids, he proposed, are substances that produce hydrogen (or hydronium) ions in solution, while bases are substances that produce hydroxide ions in solution.           

    Arrhenius then received a travel grant from the Swedish Academy of Sciences and journeyed over the country to study with famous scientists of his era such as Wilhelm Ostwald, Friedrich Kohlrausch, Ludwig Boltzmann, and J.H. van t’ Hoff.            

    Arrhenius formulated the concept of activation energy in 1889, and became a lecturer at the Stockholm University College in 1891 before being promoted to professor of physics in 1895. He was married twice (the first time to a former student), had four children, and was part of the Nobel Committee of Physics—and of Chemistry—before becoming the first Swede to receive the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. He was also the rector of the Nobel Institute for Physical Research at Stockholm (founded in 1905) until his retirement in 1927.            

    In his later years, Arrhenius’ theories were more widely accepted, and so he moved on to other scientific topics—such as the theory of the Greenhouse Effect—and he wrote both textbooks and popular books, in which he emphasized the need for further works on the topics he himself had discussed. Arrhenius came down with an acute attack of intestinal catarrh in September of 1927 and died on October 2 of the same year. He was buried in Uppsala.

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