Leopold Gmelin (1788 - 1853) Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Leopold Gmelin (1788 - 1853)

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Some Prominent 19th Century German Chemists
Friedrich Wohler | Baron Justus von Liebig | Leopold Gmelin | Friedrich August Kekulé
Johann von Baeyer | Robert Bunsen | August Wilhelm von Hofmann

The German chemist Leopold Gmelin was the son of naturalist Johann Friedrich Gmelin (1748 - 1804). JF Gmelin was a full professor of medicine and professor of chemistry, botany and mineralogy at Göttingen from 1778.

Leopold was born on 2 August, 1788, at Göttingen and studied medicine and chemistry at Göttingen, Tübingen and Vienna.


From 1799 to 1804 Leopold attended the Lyceum at Göttingen, and during the summer of 1804 he attended his father's lectures on mineralogy. In the autumn of the same year, he went to Tübingen, where he practised chemical manipulation in the pharmaceutical laboratory of a close relative, Dr Christian Gmelin, and attended Killmeyer's lectures on chemistry. In the autumn of 1805, Leopold returned to Göttingen, where he devoted himself to all branches of medical science, but especially to chemistry, for which he attended Friedrich Stromeyer's1 lectures. He also attended lectures on mathematics.

In 1911, Leopold went to Vienna, where he visited the hospitals, and carried out most of the work for his doctoral dissertation, On the Black Pigment of the Eye. He left Vienna in the spring of 1812 and went to Italy. He stayed mainly in Naples, but also in Rome, where he collected the materials for his chemico-mineralogical investigations, which formed the subject of his Habilitationsschrift (professorial dissertation) at Heidelberg.

In 1813 he began to lecture on chemistry at Heidelberg, where in 1814 he was appointed extraordinary-professor (and ultimately, in 1817, ordinary-professor) of chemistry and medicine. Gmelin was to remain at Heidelberg for the rest of his career, until he resigned in 1852, being succeeded by Robert Bunsen.

Gmelin performed important research on the chemistry of digestion and developed the Gmelin test for detecting the presence of bile pigments. Here, he used nitric acid to produce a green, blue or violet ring. He was also the first to apply the names ester and ketone to these two classes of organic compounds. He was the discoverer of potassium ferricyanide (1822).

Gmelin's Handbuch der Chemie

Gmelin's most notable contribution, however, was his Handbuch der Chemie, an important work in its day, in which he compiled and organized the principles of chemistry known at the time. It was first published in a two-volume version in 1817 and 1819 and later enlarged to 13 volumes. The work was translated into English for the Cavendish Society by H Watts as Handbook of Chemistry (19 volumes, 1848 - 1872).

Gmelin died at Heidelberg on 13 April, 1853, aged 65.

In his Address at the 14th Anniversary Meeting of the Chemical Society, during which Gmelin's death was announced, the President said:

But the greatest service which Gmelin rendered to science, a service in which he surpassed all his predecessors and all his contemporaries, consists in this: That he collected and arranged in order all the facts that have been discovered in connection with Chemistry. His Handbuch der Chemie stands alone. Other writers on Chemistry have indeed arranged large quantities of material in systematic order; but for completeness and fidelity of collation, and consecutiveness of arrangement, Gmelin's cc Handbook is unrivalled.
1Friedrich Stromeyer discovered the element cadmium in 1817 while studying zinc compounds. He was the first to recommend starch as a reagent for free iodine.

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