Goldschmidt, Victor (1888-1947) (World of Earth Science)
Victor Goldschmidt, helped lay the foundations for the field of crystal chemistry. He was a mineralogist, petrologist, and geochemist who devoted the bulk of his research to the study of the composition of the earth. During his many years as a professor and director of a mineralogical institute in Norway, he also investigated solutions to practical geochemical problems at the request of the Norwegian government.
Victor Moritz Goldschmidt was born on January 27, 1888, in Zürich, Switzerland, to Heinrich Jacob Goldschmidt, a distinguished professor of physical chemistry, and Amelie Kohne. His family left Switzerland in 1900 and moved to Norway, where his father took a post as professor of physical chemists at the University of Christiania (now Oslo). Goldschmidt's family obtained Norwegian citizenship in 1905, the same year he entered the university to study chemistry, geology, and mineralogy. There he studied under the noted geologist and petrologist Waldemar Brogger, becoming a lecturer in mineralogy and crystallography at the university in 1909.
Goldschmidt obtained his Ph.D. in 1911. His doctoral dissertation on contact metamorphic rocks, which was based on rock samples from southern Norway, is considered a classic in the field of geochemistry. It served as the starting point for an investigation of the chemical elements that Goldschmidt pursued for three decades. In 1914, he became a full professor and director of the University of Christiana's mineralogical institute. In 1917, the Norwegian government asked Goldschmidt to conduct an investigation of the country's mineral resources, as it needed alternatives to chemicals that had been imported prior to World War I and were now in short supply. The government appointed him Chair of the Government Commission for Raw Materials and head of the Raw Materials Laboratory.
This led Goldschmidt into a new area of researchhe study of the proportions of chemical elements in the earth's crust. His work was facilitated by the newly developed science of x-ray crystallography, which allowed Goldschmidt and his colleagues to determine the crystal structures of 200 compounds made up of 75 elements. He also developed the first tables of atomic and ionic radii for many of the elements, and showed how the hardness of crystals is based on their structures, ionic charges, and the proximity of their atomic particles.
In 1929, Goldschmidt moved to Gottingen, Germany, to assume the position of full professor at the Faculty of Natural Sciences and director of its mineralogical institute. As part of his investigation of the apportionment of elements outside the earth and its atmosphere, he began studying meteorites to ascertain the amounts of elements they contained. He researched numerous substances, including germanium, gallium, scandium, beryllium, selenium, arsenic, chromium, nickel, and zinc, using materials from both the earth and meteorites to devise a model of Earth. In this model, elements were distributed in different parts of Earth based on their charges and sizes. Goldschmidt stayed at Gottingen until 1935, when Nazi anti-Semitism made it impossible for him to continue his work. Returning to Oslo, he resumed work at the university there and assembled data he had collected at Gottingen on the distribution of chemical elements in Earth and in the cosmos. He also began studying ways to use Norwegian olivine rock for use in industry.
When World War II began, Goldschmidt had confrontations with the Nazis that resulted in his imprisonment on several occasions. He narrowly escaped internment in a concentration camp in 1943 when, after the Nazis arrested him, he was rescued by the Norwegian underground. They managed to secretly get him onto a boat to Sweden, where fellow scientists arranged for a flight to Scotland.
In Scotland, Goldschmidt worked at the Macaulay Institute for Soil Research in Aberdeen. Later during the war, he worked as a consultant to the Rothamsted Agricultural Experiment Station in England. As reported in Chemists, Goldschmidt carried with him a cyanide suicide pill for use in the event the Nazis invaded England. When a colleague asked him for one, he responded, "Cyanide is for chemists; you, being a professor of mechanical engineering, will have to use the rope."
After the war, Goldschmidt returned to Oslo and his job as professor and director of the geological museum. There he worked on a newly equipped raw materials laboratory supplied by the Norwegian Department of Commerce. He continued his work until his death on March 20, 1947.
Goldschmidt was a member of the Royal Society and the Geological Society of London, the latter of which awarded him the Wollaston Medal in 1944. He was also an honorary member of the British Mineralogical Society, the Geological Society of Edinburgh, and the Chemical Society of London. He wrote over 200 papers as well as a treatise, Geochemistry, which was published posthumously in 1954.
See also Mineralogy