Meyer was a distinguished German chemist who some historians feel deserves credit for the invention of the periodic table of the elements. He was born in Varel, a small town in the Duchy of Oldenburg, the son of a physician. After graduating from Gymnasium (secondary school) in Oldenburg, the young Lothar (he never used his first given name) studied medicine at the University of Zurich with Carl Ludwig and at the University of Würzburg with Rudolf Virchow.
In 1854, Meyer transferred to the University of Heidelberg, where he studied chemistry with Robert Bunsen (of Bunsen burner fame). Intriguingly, Dmitri Mendeleev had studied with Bunsen only a few years earlier, but the two great chemists’ stays in Heidelberg did not overlap. Meyer eventually received his PhD in chemistry from the University of Breslau (now University of Wrocław), where he wrote a dissertation on the role of carbon dioxide in the physiology of the blood.
After studying mathematics at the University of Königsberg, Meyer took up a position as Privatdozent in physics and chemistry at the University of Breslau. After several years there, he worked in several other short-term positions, including at the Karlsruhe Polytechnic, where he was based in a hospital and helped care for wounded soldiers during the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871). In 1876 Meyer finally attained a permanent position as Professor of Chemistry at the University of Tübingen, where he remained until his retirement.
Meyer is best known for his work on the periodic table of the elements, although his role in the development of that concept has frequently been overlooked in popular histories of science, which have a strong tendency to simplify the messy reality of science history. To explain why and how this has happened, it is necessary to enter into some detail.
During the first decades of the twentieth century, the atomic theory of matter was being applied to the concept of a chemical element by several important thinkers, notably John Dalton (1766–1844), whose pioneering A New System of Chemical Philosophy was published in 1808. In the wake of this work, many scientists began independently to suspect that the chemical elements so far discovered might be arranged into some sort of rational order or pattern on the basis of their various physical and chemical properties.
For example, in 1829 Johann Wolfgang Döbereiner (1780–1849) showed that many of the elements could be arranged into similar groups of three, or “triads,” on the basis of their masses and densities. A little later, in 1843, Leopold Gmelin (1788–1853) expanded upon Döbereiner’s system, developing a table of 55 elements exhibiting similar relationships, while in 1857 Jean-Baptiste Dumas (1800–1884) published a table of the metals which exhibited similar patterns. However, no one had yet found a way to combine all the known elements into a single rational system.
The first attempt to create a single comprehensive system emerged in 1862, when Alexandre-Émile Béguyer de Chancourtois (1820–1886) published a graph exhibiting all the known chemical elements arranged in ascending order by atomic weight. Three years later, in 1865, John Newlands (1837–1898) published work demonstrating that any given element in de Chancourtois’s graph will be qualitatively similar in its properties and behavior to the eighth element higher in the series. He called the empirical rule he discovered the “law of octaves,” after the musical scale. Newlands went so far as to predict the existence of new elements waiting to be discovered corresponding to vacant places in his table.
In 1864 Meyer published a textbook, Modern Theories of Chemistry, which provided pioneering mathematical analyses of the periodicities evident in the various analyses of the relationships among the elements. The system he advanced in this book combined 28 elements into six families of horizontal groups according to their chemical valences—the first work to focus on this crucial physico-chemical property.
Like Newlands, Meyer also predicted the existence of undiscovered elements (though he did not speculate on the properties of unknown elements, as Mendeleev was to do). In 1870, Meyer published a revised edition of his textbook, with the table rearranged into vertical groups. This table was strikingly similar to one that had been devised independently by Dmitri Mendeleev (1834–1907) during roughly this same period of time.
As for Mendeleev, after his education in Germany, while working alone back in Russia during the 1860s, he independently discovered many of these same relationships already announced by others. In 1869, he delivered his results, first in a lecture and an article in Russian, then in a German-language paper called “The Dependence between the Properties of the Atomic Weights of the Elements,” published in the prestigious Zeitschrift für Chemie. This article contained a table based on ascending atomic weights and “octave”-periodicity, which included all the then-known elements—all as in Meyer, though the discussion touches on a broader range of issues and shows deeper theoretical insight into them. Nevertheless, there is no denying the remarkable similarity between the two basic ideas or Meyer’s priority as to publication.
Why, then, has all the credit for the discovery of the periodic table conventionally gone to Mendeleev? The answer lies partly in their respective scientific achievements and partly in their cultural identities and personalities.
While in retrospect Meyer’s results are clearly superior to anyone else’s up to his time, nevertheless, he presented his work with what the German scientific community of his day would have deemed proper diffidence, which may have been misinterpreted as hesitation or indecisiveness. However that may be, to his contemporaries Meyer appeared primarily as merely one contributor among many in a crowded field. Mendeleev, on the other hand, was a brash outsider, who was more willing to make bold claims for his work in order to make a name for himself. While carefully acknowledging Meyer’s publication priority, Mendeleev made little effort to conceal his conviction that his own theory of the chemical periodicities was superior to Meyer’s. Certainly, Mendeleev was more industrious than Meyer in following up on his initial work and in exploring the underlying physical reasons for the periodicities in a scientifically fruitful way.
In summary, Mendeleev outhustled Meyer, in terms of both the science and the public relations campaign on its behalf. On the other hand, Meyer clearly deserves a prominent place in any history of the periodic table of the elements that aspires to be more than skin deep.
Julius Lothar Meyer was a German chemist. He was one of the pioneers in developing the earliest versions of the periodic table of the chemical elements. Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev and he had both worked with Robert Bunsen. Meyer never used his first given name, and was known throughout his life simply as Lothar Meyer.Source: Wikipedia
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