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Carl Wilhelm Scheele: The Unlucky Chemist

You know Bad Luck Brian. Now let me tell you about Hard-Luck Scheele.

Carl Wilhelm Scheele was born in 1742 in Stralsund, in present day Germany. His father was a well-known merchant, but Scheele chose to practice chemistry. At age 14, Scheele went to work with a pharmacist in Gothenburg, Sweden, where he first had hands-on experience with chemicals. The large variety of chemicals at his disposal excited him, and often after work, he experimented with them late into the night. The story goes that one evening while experimenting with a particularly volatile mixture, Scheele caused a loud explosion that shook the house and threw his employer into rage. Scheele was asked to leave, and soon after, he found a better mentor in his new employer, Mr. C. M. Kjellström in Malmö, and through him Scheele made his first contacts with the academic world. Two years later, in 1767, Scheele moved to Stockholm and began working as a pharmacist.

Carl Wilhelm Scheele

Carl Wilhelm Scheele

One of his first discoveries was tartaric acid, a white, crystalline organic acid that occurs naturally in many fruits, such as grapes. Winemakers knew about tartaric acid for centuries, but Scheele developed a technique to extract it chemically. Scheele was also the first person to isolate lactic acid from sour milk, as well as glycerin. He discovered hydrogen fluoride and hydrogen sulfide. But his biggest discovery was oxygen. This event also marks the beginning of an exceptionally unfortunate career.

Scheele’s discovery of oxygen came three years before Joseph Priestley did, but he took six years to publish his findings. By then, Joseph Priestley had already published his experimental data and conclusions concerning oxygen. Before the gas was named “oxygen”, Scheele called it “fire air” because it seemed to support combustion. Scheele also found that air was a mixture of “fire air” and “foul air”, one of which was breathable and the other not.

Scheele went on to discover at least six more elements—barium, chlorine, molybdenum, manganese, nitrogen, and tungsten— for which he received no recognition. In the case of chlorine, Scheele thought it was an oxide obtained from hydrochloric acid, and called it ‘muriaticum’. It was some four decades later that Sir Humphrey Davy ascertained that muriaticum didn’t contain any oxygen and was in fact an element. Davy gave it the name chlorine. As for barium, Scheele knew it was an element but he was not able to isolate it. It was again Humphrey Davy who isolated the metal. The same with molybdenum. Scheele stated firmly that the mineral molybdena was unique and not an ore of lead. He proposed, correctly, that it contained a distinct new element and suggested the name molybdenum. However, it was Peter Jacob Hjelm who successfully isolated molybdenum and got the credit. Scheele’s run of poor luck continued with manganese, an element he identified but was not able to extract.

Carl Wilhelm Scheele

Statue of chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele in Humlegarden park in Stockholm, Sweden. Photo credit: Mikhail Markovskiy/Shutterstock.com 

Scheele would have wanted to be remembered for a lot of things, and forgotten for the only invention he is now known for—a compound known as Scheele's Green, that has over the decades killed untold number of people including Napoleon perhaps. Scheele's Green is a yellowish-green pigment which was used to dye paper, such as wallpapers and paper hangings, dye cotton and linen and also in some children's toys. The pigment is a compound of arsenic.

In those days, the toxicity of arsenic was not known. People used bright green wallpapers in their rooms, ladies wore green dresses and newspapers and magazines used vibrant green colors to print advertisements. During Napoleon's exile in St. Helena, he resided in a house in which the rooms were painted bright green, his favorite color. Although Napoleon died of stomach cancer, arsenic exposure is known to increase the risk of gastric carcinoma. Analysis of samples of his hair also revealed significant amounts of arsenic.

Scheele, in many ways, was far ahead of his time. He discovered more elements and isolated more compounds than any of his peers, yet the only thing that was named after him was a poison. The celebrated American writer Issac Asimov recognized Scheele as one of the greatest pharmacist in history, but his inability to command the same level of recognition as many of his contemporaries led Asimov to famously refer to the genius as “hard-luck Scheele”.

Years of dabbling with dangerous chemicals, including heavy metals (Scheele had the habit of smelling ad tasting any new substance he discovered), took toll on his health and he developed kidney problems. Scheele died young at the age of 43 from mercury poisoning.

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