In 1869, Dmitri Mendeleev cancelled a planned visit to a factory and stayed at home working on the problem of how to arrange the chemical elements in a systematic way. These documents, still in existence, mark the beginning of the form of the Periodic Table used today.
Mendeleev was born in Tobolsk, Siberia, where his father taught Russian literature and his mother owned and operated a glassworks. His early contacts with political exiles gave him a lifelong love of liberal causes, and his freedom to roam the glassworks stimulated an interest in business and industrial chemistry. His mother—after her husband’s death and shortly before her own—took the 15-year-old Dmitri to St. Petersburg. There he attended the Main Pedagogical Institute and the University of St. Petersburg, where he pursued a doctorate in chemistry. During his graduate studies he traveled to Heidelberg to work with Bunsen.
After returning to St. Petersburg from Karlsruhe, Mendeleev taught at the St. Petersburg Technological Institute, completed his doctoral dissertation, started an experimental farm, and lectured for the Free Economic Society on agricultural topics. When in 1867 he was appointed to the chair of chemistry at the University of St. Petersburg, he too began to write a textbook, Osnovy Khimii (Principles of Chemistry; first edition, 1871), and worked out the “periodic law,” which was first published in papers in 1869. Mendeleev succeeded in arranging all known elements into one table.
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Excerpted with permission, Chemical Heritage Foundation