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Book Review Liebig und seine Schler Die neue Schule der Chemie. By Georg Schwedt

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Liebig und seine Schler
Die neue Schule
der Chemie. By
Georg Schwedt.
Springer Verlag,
Heidelberg 2002.
282 pp., hardcover E 34.95.—
ISBN 3-54043205-1
The academic chemical laboratory that
Justus Liebig (1803 – 1873) established
in the small university town of Giessen
has been portrayed as the fount of a
powerful innovation that transformed
both teaching and research practice in
universities around the world. After an
abortive pharmaceutical apprenticeship
followed by chemical study at the universities of Bonn and Erlangen, Liebig
traveled to Paris to learn the science
from one of the greatest chemists of the
century, Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac.
Liebig then won a professorship at the
University of Giessen, in his home state
of Grossherzogtum Hessen, at the amazing age of just 21. By the 1830s Liebig
was already famous, and chemistry students from the various German states
and around the world began to seek out
this youthful phenomenon. By the time
that he was finally lured away from
Giessen to Munich in 1852, Liebig had
succeeded in utterly transforming both
chemistry and higher education in the
Schwedt offers a close and attractive
examination of this story, published on
the occasion of the 200th anniversary
of Liebig3s birth. His first two chapters
look respectively at the transformation
Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2003, 42, 1997 – 1998
of Liebig3s laboratory in Giessen into
the present Liebig-Museum, and at
Liebig3s relationship with the family of
the pharmacist Heinrich Merck (who,
like Liebig, was born in Darmstadt). He
then begins to tell the life of Liebig,
dwelling affectionately on each stage of
the life of this interesting man. His
emphasis is very much on Liebig3s
education, the Giessen years, the formation of his “school” or research
group, and the students themselves. All
of this is worthy of the emphasis he
provides, for Liebig3s activities were
indeed transformative, and among Liebig3s students were many of the most
famous chemists of the next generation
(including Hermann Kopp, Heinrich
Will, Adolf Strecker, August Wilhelm
von Hofmann, August Kekulé, Jakob
Volhard, Franz Varrentrapp, Max Pettenkofer, Emil Erlenmeyer, Charles
Gerhardt, Adolphe Wurtz, Victor Regnault, Alexander Williamson, Lyon
Playfair, and Eben Norton Horsford).
About three-fourths of the book is
devoted to Liebig3s education and his
Giessen period, and to biographies of
his students; Schwedt then concludes
with a brief discussion of the latter
stages of Liebig3s life and career.
Schwedt3s conscientious research in
obscure nineteenth century printed and
archival sources is truly to be admired,
and the level of detail in which matters
are treated is sometimes almost overwhelming. Do you want to know about
the history of the Darmst@dter P@dagogium where Liebig learned to read (for
example), or the story of the apothecary
shop in Heppenheim where he apprenticed, or the early histories of the
universities that he attended? You will
find it all here, along with 62 illustrations, many of which will be unfamiliar
even to those who think they already
know this material well.
Schwedt uses the effective technique
of letting Liebig speak for himself.
Liebig wrote a fascinating autobiographical memoir (published posthumously), and much of his extensive
correspondence has also been published, including letters to family members, as well as to Friedrich WEhler,
Jacob Berzelius, Hermann Kolbe, A. W.
Hofmann, his publisher Eduard Vieweg,
and several others. Numerous and
extensive quotations from these sources
enliven the narrative. Schwedt also creatively mines several older published
memoirs written by members of Liebig3s
research school, especially those by Carl
Vogt, Friedrich SchEdler, and Wilhelm
Hamm; these fascinating fragments are
too little known in the Liebig literature.
This is a book intended for a general
readership. One result of this is that
there is almost nothing here on the
actual content of Liebig3s science. More
problematically, there is a bibliography,
but no footnotes; this means that it will
be very difficult for a scholar to trace the
multitude of direct quotes to precise
sources and page numbers. Moreover, in
his research Schwedt has emphasized
the use of primary over secondary
sources. He has used some recent secondary materials, such as William
Brock3s excellent biography of Liebig,
but much important secondary literature remains unmentioned, and he does
not engage in the kind of interpretive
debates that mark the academic history
profession. In short, there is little historiography here, and many academic historians who specialize in the development of nineteenth century science will
find Schwedt3s orientation towards
Liebig rather uncritical.
One final cautionary remark is that a
valuable appendix listing 209 of Liebig3s
students ends curiously at the name of
Heinrich Will. This is, to be sure, very
close to the end of the alphabet, but it
excludes such extremely important
Liebig students as Alexander Williamson, Adolphe Wurtz, and Nikolai Zinin
(all properly treated in the text of the
These reservations aside, it must be
stressed that Georg Schwedt has succeeded in writing a highly engaging
portrait of Liebig and his school, based
on extensive research. Those interested
in learning more about the life of this
fascinating and important individual will
find much of value in this book.
Alan Rocke
Department of History
Case Western Reserve University
Cleveland, Ohio (USA)
2 2003 Wiley-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim
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