Medical Definition of Berzelius, Jons Jacob

  • Medical Author:
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

Berzelius, Jons Jacob: Celebrated Swedish chemist (1779-1848).

Berzelius's early life was marked by a struggle to obtain a satisfactory education. In 1796 he entered the University of Uppsala but his studies were interrupted because of lack of funds. He began his chemical experiments without any official encouragement and from 1799 he worked during the summers as a physician at Medevi Springs where he analyzed the waters. He finally obtained his M.D. in 1802 with a dissertation on the medical uses of the voltaic pile. After graduating, Berzelius moved to Stockholm where he did research with Wilhelm Hisinger, a mining chemist. Their first success came in 1803 with the isolation of cesium, although the discovery was anticipated by Martin Klaproth. Berzelius later discovered selenium (1817), thorium (1828), and his coworkers discovered lithium (1818) and vanadium (1830). In 1807 Berzelius was appointed professor at the School of Surgery in Stockholm (later the Karolinska Institute).

Berzelius was a meticulous experimenter and systematizer of chemistry. His early work was on electrochemistry, and he developed a "dualistic" view of compounds, in which they were composed of positive and negative parts. He was an ardent supporter of John Dalton's atomic theory. From 1835 Berzelius's rigid adherence to the dualistic theory proved less fruitful in the study of organic chemistry. He was an inventor of much familiar chemical apparatus, including rubber tubing and filter papers. He also introduced the modern chemical symbols represented by letters. He had a knack of coining words for phenomena and substances -- the terms "catalysis," "protein," and "isomerism" were all introduced by him.

Reviewed on 9/7/2018

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