Here are the extremely brief highlights from lives of scientists who contributed to our understanding of chemistry. We try to make sure that the factual data are correct, but we do not vouch for the veracity of the anecdotes. Enjoy!


This small collection is arranged alphabetically.  To facilitate navigation select the letter of the alphabet corresponding to the last name of the scientist.


Niels Bohr (1885-1962) received his doctorate in physics from the University of Copenhagen (Denmark) in 1911. He then studied under British physicist Ernest Rutherford.  In 1913 Bohr published a theory about the structure of the atom that improved the Rutherford model, proposing that electrons travel only in certain successively larger orbits, and that the outer orbits determine the atom's chemical properties. Bohr also described the way atoms emit radiation when an electron jumps from an outer orbit to an inner one. He won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1922 for his theory. 

Niels Bohr kept a horse shoe over his desk.  One day a student asked if he really believed that a horse shoe brought luck. Bohr replied, "I understand that it brings you luck if you believe in it or not."

Louis-Victor duc de Broglie (1892-1987).  Prince de Broglie studied history at the Sorbonne in Paris, in preparation for a career in the French diplomatic service. At the age of 18 he began to study physics, and after a lot of considerations decided to change his career.  During research for his doctoral thesis he put forward his theory of electron waves. It was published in 1923.  For his work, he received the Nobel Prize in physics in 1929.

"As in my conversations with my brother we always arrived at the conclusion that in the case of x-rays one had both waves and corpuscles, thus suddenly [ ...] I got the idea that one had to extend this duality to material particles, especially to electrons. And I realized that [...] in quantum phenomena one obtains quantum numbers, which are rarely found in mechanics but occur very frequently in wave phenomena and in all problems dealing with wave motion."

Paul Dirac (1902-1984) was educated at the  Bristol University. He graduated with first-class honors in electrical engineering in 1921, and  in mathematics,  in 1923. He developed his matrix formulation of quantum mechanics at Cambridge in mid-1920s. In 1932 he was appointed Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, the post once held by Sir Isaac Newton and today by Stephen Hawking.  In 1933 he obtain the Nobel Prize in physics (with Schrödinger) for his work (he was so shy, that he even considered for a while not to accept it). Dirac also combined the theories of quantum mechanics and special relativity, explained the mysterious magnetic and "spin" properties of the electron, and predicted the existence of a positron.

During a lecture, Dirac derives several equations of quantum mechanics. A courageous student raises his finger and says timidly: "Professor Dirac, I do not understand the second equation." Dirac continues writing without any reaction. The student supposes Dirac has not heard him and raises his finger again, and says, louder this time: "Professor Dirac, I do not understand the second equation."  No reaction. Somebody in the first row decides to intervene and says: "Professor Dirac, that man is asking a question." "Oh," Dirac replies, "I thought he was making a statement."

Wolfgang Pauli (1900-1958) was born in Vienna, educated in Munich, initially did his research at Götingen, Hamburg and Copenhagen universities.  He proposed a quantum number for electron spin in 1924, and his formulation of the "Exclusion Principle" was made in 1928.  For this work he received the Nobel Prize in physics in 1945. He obtained American citizenship in 1946 (he was a visiting professor in Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton), and Swiss citizenship in 1949 (he was a professor at ETH).

Pauli is asked by his colleague who is a journal editor to review a scientific manuscript submitted to the journal by another famous scientist.  After a quick reading Pauli runs back into the editor office and pronounces his verdict: "This isn't right. This isn't even wrong!"

Linus Pauling (1901-1994) was born in Portland (Oregon).  He received his doctorate in 1925 from the California Institute of Technology and remained on its teaching staff until 1963. He was a chemistry professor at Stanford University from 1969 to 1973. He won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1954 for his research on the nature of the chemical bond  (electronegativity, hybridization and resonance were some of his ideas) and its use in understanding the structure of complex substances such as protein and antibodies. He campaigned vigorously against nuclear weapons and was awarded the 1962 Nobel Peace Prize. He was also known for his belief that large doses of ascorbic acid (vitamin C) could extend a person's life by decades and ward off colds, cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Pauling got interested in chemistry at 13, doing chemical reaction with his friend Lloyd Jefress (who became a leading psychologist later).

" When I was fifteen [...] Lloyd Jefress and I were visiting my grandmother in Oswego, Oregon, and she said to me, "What are you going to be when you grown up, Linie?" And I said, "I am going to be a chemical engineer." Lloyd Jefress said, "No he isn't, he is going to be a professor." But I went on and got my bachelor's degree in chemical engineering at Oregon Agricultural College because I didn't know that there were such people as professional chemists. "

Ervin Schrödinger (1887-1961). This Austrian was a highly gifted man with a broad education in chemistry, botany,  Italian painting, and, of course, physics. He abhorred memorization of data and learning from books.  His great discovery, Schrödinger's wave equation, was made in 1926.  For his work he shared (with Dirac) the Nobel Prize in physics in 1933.

Throughout his scientific career and also in his personal life, Schrödinger never tried to achieve a specific goal, nor did he follow any extensive project. He always found it difficult to work with others, even with his own students.  He always carried his belongings in a backpack (very uncommon in those times) and walked everywhere, rather than use city transportation.

Johannes van der Waals (1837-1923).  Dutch physicist started his career as an elementary school teacher.  After a revision of the law requiring knowledge of Latin and Greek for graduation, he received (in 1873) Ph.D. degree for the thesis with the now famous "correction" for the ideal gas law that takes into consideration the actual volume of the molecules and their interactions (know today as van der Waals forces). In 1910 he received the Nobel Prize in physics for his work. 

Frank (Rocky) Clifford Whitmore (1887-1947) received his doctorate in chemistry from Harvard in 1914.  He taught at Williams College, Rice Institute, University of Minnesota, Northwestern University, and since 1929 at Penn State where he was a dean of School of Chemistry and Physics, while he himself directed 118 Ph.D. students (of the 215 total in the chemistry department at that time). He was the first to develop the concept of a carbocation (in 1932) and provided the first explanation of carbocation rearrangements. He contributed to the war effort, working on super-explosives, synthesis of anti-malarials and production of penicillin. 

During the WW I while at Rice, Whitmore tried to help the word effort by making poison gases from arsenic and mercury compounds. There was no hood available to remove the fumes, so Whitmore and his assistant "used the Texas breezes to blow things away." After making a test bomb, they carefully gauged the wind and thrown the bomb against the parapet so the wind would blow it away.  On one occasion the wind just changed. After they recovered, they were "impressed with a peculiar odor", that was later recognized as that of deadly gas lewisite.

Scientists Last updated 08/07/12 Copyright 1997-2013
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