Nature Chemistry | The Sceptical Chymist

The greatest chemist of all time?

Disclaimer: this was a bit of Twitter-related fun and while it does throw up some interesting observations, this is in no way a properly executed comprehensive survey of ‘the greatest chemist of all time’…

It’s not an easy question, and probably not a fair one either. What do we mean by ‘greatest’ and, for that matter, what do we mean by ‘chemist’? We’re probably only on safe ground with ‘all time’!

This all started over lunch a couple of days ago when the London-based members of the NChem team (myself, Gav and Neil) were having lunch at NPG towers with, amongst others, the chief editor of Nature Nanotechnology (@drpeterrodgers). After the usual football banter had come to an end, somehow we got on to the topic of iconic figures in physics and chemistry.

If you ask physicists to name the greatest of all time in their field, many will choose Einstein or Newton — see this Physics World story (free registration required) and this BBC piece. Of course there are many other great physicists, but ask for just one name and it usually boils down to one of those two. In chemistry, however, we came to the conclusion that there aren’t just one or two names that stand out from the crowd — there’s just a crowd.

To put this to the test, we decided to conduct a wholly arbitrary and definitely unscientific poll on Twitter, asking the simple question — who is the greatest chemist of all time? No qualifiers and no guidelines, other than you can only pick one name. No ranking of multiple individuals and no shared glory. No debate (at this stage) of whether someone would have been classified more as a physicist than a chemist in their time. And the results don’t include retweets of suggestions, unless they specifically indicated that they were additional votes for, rather than just RTs of stuff people found interesting. Many thanks to everyone who responded.

And so, here are the results:

We had 86 votes in total, with a whopping 36 different suggestions of who is the greatest chemist.

The top four places go to: Linus Pauling (16 votes), Dmitri Mendeleev (11), Antoine Lavoisier (7) and Marie Curie (6 votes).

Then we have Robert Burns Woodward (4), Michael Faraday (4) and Gilbert Lewis (3).

Everyone else just got one or two votes — and they are (in no particular order): Amedeo Avogadro (2), Fritz Haber (2), Friedrich Wöhler (1), Alfred Werner (1), Henry Moseley (1), Paul Walden (1), Robert Robinson (1), Ludwig Boltzmann (1), Jacobus Henricus van ’t Hoff (1), Jābir ibn Hayyān (2), E. J. Corey (2), August Kekulé (2), Robert Boyle (1), Walther Nernst (1), Svante Arrhenius (1), Shigeru Terabe (1), James Joule (1), Victor Grignard (1), William Perkin (1), Stanislao Cannizzaro (1), Wallace Carothers (1), Emil Fischer (1), Wilhelm Ostwald (1), Niels Bohr (2), Ryōji Noyori (1), Paracelsus (1), Mother Nature (1), Louis Pasteur (1), Humphry Davy (1).

There are some notable names not mentioned, including Gibbs, Dalton and Priestley.

What does this mean? We’ll consider this more thoroughly in an upcoming editorial, but for now it is clear that even in this small sample size, there are many different chemistry heroes. Sure, Pauling and Mendeleev got a few more votes than the others, but they’re not streaking ahead — and there is a long tail here.

Is this a problem for chemistry — not having a unifying iconic figurehead that we can point to? Maybe, maybe not. But in a year when our subject is being celebrated on the global stage and we take stock of its wider appeal in the world, it’s something to consider (not that we can really do much about it though!). The International Year of Chemistry is rightly celebrating Marie Curie and her contributions to chemistry, and she does well in our little poll, but is one of many names.

Perhaps we should be proud that there are so many names mentioned in response to the question of who is the greatest, it must reflect — in some measure — the diversity and depth of our subject.

Returning again to the question itself — it is not an easy one, because how do you compare the likes of Woodward and Mendeleev, or Pauling and Wöhler. The answers to the question we pose are wholly subjective, but it’s more the whole exercise and breadth of responses that are more enlightening.

We really hope you join the discussion in the comments to this blog post — and please do add your votes for who you think is the greatest chemist of all time.

Stuart

Stuart Cantrill (Chief Editor, Nature Chemistry)

Comments

  1. Report this comment

    Neil said:

    Disclaimer: One of those 16 votes for Pauling is mine.

    I’d be interested to know whether it’s chemistry or physics that’s the odd one out here: who is the greatest biologist/mathematician/geologist/etc? Do biologists consider Darwin as head-and-shoulders above everyone else as physicists do Newton and Einstein, or is he one-among-many as we consider Pauling and Woodward?

    Maybe its the fundamental nature of physics that there are people who have uncovered deep mysteries of the universe – are there such deep mysteries to uncover in other subjects? Or just a lifetime of great work in several areas, so the decision is more subjective.

    I’ve just noticed that pretty much all of this comment is questions – it just goes to show what an intriguing question it is.

  2. Report this comment

    belle said:

    This is a quite interesting topic and list.

    What struck me with the appearance of Fritz Haber on the list is how we define greatness-by intellectual contributions alone? Or do we consider other aspects of their impact on society? Haber was no doubt brilliant, making great contributions to industrial process such as synthesis of ammonia.

    At the same time, though, he has also been portrayed as being near obsessive for to achieve what he set his mind to, irrespective of the human cost. Even his wife’s suicide did not deter him from his work and his push for the development and use of chemical warfare, deploying chlorine gas on the front lines during WWI.

    I use Haber to make my point only because I am familiar with his story, but there is little doubt that others (on both sides) were/are guilty of such zeal.

  3. Report this comment

    Neil said:

    @belle: Great point about Haber and intellectual contribution vs impact on society. My first reaction would be to say that intellectual contribution is the main thing, and he did have many positive societal impacts as well as the negative. Plus he’s not the only scientist to have been involved in developing weapons – do the many many great physicists involved in the Manhattan project suffer the same stigma? I’d argue not. Einstein himself wrote that famous letter to Roosevelt after all.

    But you obviously can’t avoid these negative points: it would be interesting to see what impact it would have on the reputation of an even higher-profile chemist.

    While it’s great to consider that Pauling also won the Nobel peace prize, does his slightly…eccentric, shall we say, championing of vitamin C megadoses affect his reputation at all? I know you can’t be right all the time, but still!

  4. Report this comment

    Paul said:

    I find it very hard to make a compelling argument for Curie as “greatest chemist of all time”. Some goes for 80% of the people who received 1 or 2 votes.

    My tentative top 5:

    Pauling

    Lewis

    Lavoisier

    Gibbs

    Woodward

  5. Report this comment

    Neil said:

    @Paul: I think that by giving a top 5, you’re reinforcing the point that it’s very very hard to pick just a single figure who is ‘the greatest chemist’ – or even two.

    Picking a top 5 – distributing them fairly evenly over time and sub-discipline – would give a good overview and be a fun exercise. One for future posts!

    And still, will no-one stand up and vote for Gibbs or Dalton? Or anyone else we’ve missed?!

  6. Report this comment

    Paul said:

    Oh…I meant that top 5 to be a ranked top 5 (in descending order). Pauling is my #1.

    But you’re right…it’s not easy/clear-cut.

  7. Report this comment

    Curious Wavefunction said:

    When he was alive, Pauling was definitely the premier figurehead for chemistry. But the fact that he uniquely worked in almost every major branch of chemistry reinforces the difficulty of having an equivalent figurehead today.

  8. Report this comment

    Matt said:

    First, on this issue of Pauling’s wackiness … Newton was an alchemist (or alchymist for the British crowd) by night. So, I think we can let the vitamin C stuff slide. – full disclosure: I voted for Pauling.

    The thing about holding up physicists such as Newton and Einstein is that they had such an enormous impact on the field whose theories are still state of the art (for textbooks, anyway) today.

    I think that Pauling is right up there with these two and Darwin … but, there’s no press or fascination around Pauling (or any of the other candidates outside of possibly Curie). Therefore, we’re left with lots of people on our list. That’s not a bad thing. But I think it just reflects the lack of infatuation with chemistry by the general public.

  9. Report this comment

    belle said:

    Neil, by all means, there have been numerous scientists who contributed, to put it harshly, to death and destruction on sizable scales. Our perceptions of such actions are no doubt colored by which side with which we affiliate. From the Wikipedia entry on Haber (linked in the post), Haber made the statement, “During peace time a scientist belongs to the World, but during war time he belongs to his country.” So perhaps we shouldn’t judge too severely, but we also cannot ignore such actions.

    With regard to Pauling and vitamin C… we all have our blind spots, weaknesses, or crackpot theories 🙂 In some ways, perhaps it is easier to overlook innocuous failings, or even to look upon them with bemusement. After all, there is something vindicating about finding a flaw in even the greatest heroes, something that makes them seem more human… more like us.

  10. Report this comment

    Magdeline Lum said:

    My first complaint of the Twitter poll was that I had to choose just one great Chemist. I wasn’t the only one. My vote went to Marie Curie in the end out of personal sentiment as well as her achievements in science.

    Though recently I’ve learned that Dutch chemist Coenraad Johannes van Houten created cocoa powder that wasn’t bitter tasting and one that dissolved in milk or water. And well, there’s an abundance of chocolate these days.

    How do you measure the greatness of a Chemist? Vast achievements or high impact on society? That’s the part that I found difficult to separate.

  11. Report this comment

    Neil said:

    @Belle and on the subject of “scientists at war”: I was thinking about this over the weekend and came to the conclusion that you’d be hard-pressed to find an early-/mid-twentieth century scientist who hadn’t contributed to their country’s war effort, so perhaps we should draw the line under that part!

    But on the subject of Pauling and vitamin C…I don’t know if I can draw the line under that quite so willingly. I think it does tarnish my view of him, even if only by a whisker. I mean, Einstein not wearing socks or having problems with all the implications on quantum mechanics is one thing, handing out slightly odd medical advice is quite another.

    @Magdeline re just choosing one #greatchemist: that’s exactly the problem! There isn’t a single figurehead who stands out who we can use as the shining exemplar to inspire the masses. And your point on measuring their achievements is interesting – I guess if we were do this in a slightly more systematic way, we could give people marks out of 10 in categories like ‘Influence on their contempories’, ‘Impact on society’, ‘Lifetime body of work’, etc etc. I’ll let someone else do that…

  12. Report this comment

    Neil said:

    Our Italian-speaking readers may enjoy reading this post: http://gifh.wordpress.com/2011/01/08/chi-e-il-piu-grande-chimico-della-storia/ from ‘Il chimico impertinente’ (or @flippantchemist). The post also considers who the greatest Italian chemist is, with more contenders than Avogadro and Cannizaro who feature above.

    (I must argue with the first graphic though…surely Getafix the druid must come higher than the other cartoon chemists?!)

  13. Report this comment

    Gifh said:

    Oh, many thanks for your really nice mention! I like so much this kind of survey, my vote was for Amedeo Avogadro (and his number), we share the same place of birth and I’m proud of that!

    Well, thinking ‘bout Getafix (or Panoramix as we know him), he was merely an old alchemist with several potions in his menu. While Gyro Gearloose (aka Archimede Pitagorico) is quite more then a simple chemist, Papa Smurf has a real well equipped lab containing several chemical devices and he makes magical elixirs and other stuff! He’s great independently to his height! 😉

    Ok, as the poll is totally unscientific, so is my graphic!

    My best regards.

  14. Report this comment

    Monica said:

    Interesting conundrum! As a chocolate lover I appreciate learning of Dutch chemist Coenraad Johannes van Houten’s creation of cocoa powder, but I was going to put my vote in for the unknown man or woman who first created beer (second favorite food group behind chocolate).

    But if the contest does not require it be an actual HUMAN, I would like to suggest the well-known Muppet Dr. Bunsen Honeydew. Although his tremendous accomplishments cannot really be acknowledged without the help of his capable lab assistant Beaker…..

    http://muppet.wikia.com/wiki/Dr._Bunsen_Honeydew

  15. Report this comment

    Henry Rzepa said:

    I would like to add the Braggs. Just think of the impact that x-ray crystallography has had on all aspects molecular, and think of how eg medicine would be so very impoverished if we did not know the structures of molecules, both small and large.

  16. Report this comment

    Neil said:

    @Henry

    The Braggs – especially the younger – have been bubbling away in the back of my mind during this discussion too. But I wasn’t sure whether I’d call them chemists! Their impact on chemistry is absolutely phenomenal though, so I’m glad you mentioned them.

  17. Report this comment

    David Hardesty, (MD, not chemist) said:

    Perhaps Sir Winston Churchill was wrong? (In the defense of democracy, A Brief comment to Chembark)

    In your own blog, which I found quite interesting, you referenced this poll, stating…

    the editors at Nature Chemistry conducted a Twitter poll to answer the age-old question: ”Who is the greatest chemist of all-time?” …

    You then restated the following results of the 86-vote survey:

    Linus Pauling (16)

    Dmitri Mendeleev (11)

    Antoine Lavoisier (7)

    Marie Curie (6)…

    … and went on to comment

    “Perhaps Sir Winston Churchill was right when he said, ‘the best argument against a democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.’

    However, after critique of the rationale of some voters chosen chemist, you created your own list (a ‘top 5’). I was surprised to see you chose Pauling as #1.

    As a liberal American, my faith in democracy was challenged by Bush on two occasions. With Obama’s win, I began to think ‘maybe the system does work?’

    If the goal was to find the greatest chemist, and you are the litmus test, then in this instance democracy appears to have worked despite obvious twitter bias and a small sample size (Go USA). I hope that you are right.

  18. Report this comment

    RaffRag said:

    No vote went to Democritus. He was the first scientist to formulate an atomic theory without knowing anything about the microscopic nature of matter. My vote goes to him.

  19. Report this comment

    Reginald B. Little said:

    I offer my opinion.

    1. Antoine Lavoisier (Element, Compound and Mixture; Weighing and Balancing

    Chemical Reactions; Thermal-Activation Chemistry).

    2. Jons Jacob Berzelius (Ionic Compound and Ionic Bond; Discovering and Weighing

    Elements; Interpreting Ionic and Radical Reactions; Electrochemistry).

    3. Gilbert N. Lewis (Covalent Compound and Covalent [Electron Pair] Bond;

    Measuring Interactions [With Discoveries], Free Energies and Entropies of

    Chemical Reactions; Photomolecular Magnetism).

  20. Report this comment

    Mr. Everett said:

    You have to include Gibbs here. I can’t disagree with Pauling as #1 since he authored such an authoritative text on the modern subject. Curie would rank high if the question was posed as “physical scientists”, but as just a chemist cracking the top four is a bit much for me.

    Oh, and who cast the single vote for Mother Nature?

  21. Report this comment

    Gifh said:

    One of my readers asked to me why nobody cite Frederick Sanger, he is the fourth (and only living) person to have been awarded two Nobel Prizes, either individually or in tandem with others. I couldn’t answer indeed…