Today in Science History – January 12 – Johan August Arfwedson and Lithium

Johan August Arfwedson
Johan August Arfwedson (1792 – 1841)

January 12 is Johan August Arfwedson’s birthday. Arfwedson was a Swedish chemist who discovered the element lithium.

Arfwedson was from a wealthy family and matriculated early from Uppsala University where he earned both a Law degree and a degree in mineralogy. The law degree allowed him to manage his family’s wealth and the mineralogy degree allowed him to keep busy as an unpaid secretary and notary at the Royal Bureau of Mines at Stockholm. There, he struck up a friendship with one of the leading figures in chemistry, Jöns Jacob Berzelius. Berzelius gave Arfwedson access and working space in his private laboratory.

In 1817, he began investigating the mineral petalite. He found it contained aluminum, silicon, and oxygen. After determining how much of each, he discovered he had only accounted for about 96% of the total mass of his samples. After further experimentation, he discovered the missing part formed salts chemically similar to sodium and potassium.  Arfwedson’s new metal came from a rock, so he called it lithium after the Greek word lithos meaning stone.

Arfwedson discovered other minerals carried his new stone metal, but could never successfully isolate lithium in a pure sample. Lithium would not be found in its pure form until 1821 when William Thomas Brande used electrolysis on lithium oxide.

Notable Science History Events for January 12

1997 – Charles Brenton Huggins died.

Charles Brenton Huggins
Charles Brenton Huggins (1901 – 1997)
Nobel Foundation

Huggins was a Canadian-American physician who was awarded half the 1966 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his hormonal treatment of prostate cancer. He believed that since the prostate gland is controlled by androgen hormones that perhaps blocking those hormones could help treat any cancerous tissue. He originally had the idea of castrating his patients to block these hormones but found the same results could be achieved by using female sex hormones.

1903 – Igor Vasilyevich Kurchatov was born.

Igor Vasilyevich Kurchatov
Igor Vasilyevich Kurchatov (1903 – 1960)

Kurchatov was the Soviet nuclear physicist who would lead the Soviet nuclear research program to produce the first Soviet atomic weapon, thermonuclear weapon, and the first atomic power plant. He was working on the technical problems involved in producing a chain reaction using uranium when the German invasion of Russia began and halted his research. When intelligence showed the United States and Britain were close to producing a bomb he was reassigned to head the Soviet efforts. His final project was the attempt to produce power from fusion energy.

1899 – Paul Hermann Müller was born.

Paul Hermann Müller
Paul Hermann Müller (1899 – 1965)
Nobel Foundation

Müller was a Swiss chemist who was awarded the 1948 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his discovery that DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) was a highly effective poison for anthropods. It was used to great effect against mosquitoes and lice for many years until the environmental effects were cumulative and DDT was banned in the United States in 1972.

1792 – Johan August Arfwedson was born.

1580 – Jan Baptista van Helmont was born.

Jan Baptist van Helmont
Jan Baptist van Helmont (1579 – 1644)

Helmont was a Flemish physician and alchemist who introduced the term ‘gas’ to chemistry. He was the first to identify air was made up of different gases. He was also the first to show the gas given off by burning charcoal was identical to the gas given off during the fermentation process. He called this gas ‘gas sylvestre’, but we know it today as carbon dioxide.