Wilhelm Ostwald Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Ostwald’s most notable work was in the field of chemistry, in which he is considered to be the “father” of physical chemistry and in which he was awarded the 1909 Nobel Prize. He was later nominated for a second Nobel Prize, this time in physics, for his work in the field of color science.

Early Life

Friedrich Wilhelm Ostwald, son of Gottfried Wilhelm and Elisabeth Leuckel Ostwald, was born in Riga, Latvia, on September 2, 1853, and spent the first thirty-four years of his life there and in nearby Dorpat (now Tartu). At the Realgymnasium at Riga, Ostwald required seven years to complete the curriculum normally finished in four. This delay can be attributed to the wide range of his interests, because during this period young Ostwald pursued studies in music, becoming proficient on both piano and viola; studied painting and handicrafts under the tutelage of his father; and set up a private laboratory in which he experimented in chemistry and physics, became an accomplished amateur photographer and film processor, and manufactured fireworks. The near disasters that accompanied the fireworks project taught him the need for more than a recipe and a desire. He knew he needed an understanding of what was occurring.

In 1872, following graduation from the Realgymnasium, Ostwald left Riga to attend the University of Dorpat and studied chemistry under Carl Schmidt and Johann Lemberg and physics with Arthur von Öttingen. More focused on his pursuits, Ostwald finished this part of his chemical education in only three years. Thereafter, he took positions as an unpaid assistant, first to Öttingen and later to Schmidt. Ostwald credited these two men as the main influences on his chemistry. Ostwald also realized the need for a strong mathematical background and proceeded to teach himself from a textbook by Karl Snell. Ostwald later gave Snell credit both for his sound mathematics and for his direction into the field of philosophy. He was awarded the doctorate in chemistry by the University of Dorpat in 1878 with a dissertation whose subject was optical refraction as a way to assess chemical affinity. Ostwald stayed in Dorpat, assisting at the university and teaching at the Realgymnasium.

In 1880, Ostwald married Helen von Reyher. Their marriage produced two daughters and three sons. His son, Karl Wilhelm Wolfgang, followed in his father’s footsteps and was a prominent chemist, and one of his daughters, Grete, published an Ostwald biography, Wilhelm Ostwald: Mein Vater (1953; Wilhelm Ostwald, my father). In 1881, Ostwald returned to Riga as professor of chemistry at the Polytechnic Institute. While holding this position, Ostwald began making scientific contributions that brought him to the attention of the world’s chemists.

Life’s Work

The branch of chemistry known as physical chemistry originated in a series of lectures on chemical affinity that Ostwald presented at the University of Dorpat in 1876. Notes from that series were expanded by research and reading and published as Ostwald’s first book, Lehrbuch der allgemeinen Chemie (1885-1887; textbook of general chemistry), which presented a new organization of chemistry.

In 1881, Ostwald accepted the professorship of chemistry at the Riga Polytechnicum. At Riga, Ostwald became interested in Svante Arrhenius’ ionic dissociation theory, and in 1886 Arrhenius accepted an invitation to work with Ostwald. The two worked closely, but on different problems, for years. Jacobus H. van’t Hoff’s publications on chemical dynamics were also noted by Ostwald. It was the importance of these new concepts of Arrhenius and of van’t Hoff that Ostwald recognized and promoted in his writing. The controversy generated by Ostwald’s “new chemistry” brought him wide recognition and the appointment as professor of physical chemistry at the University of Leipzig in 1887.

Ostwald organized the Department of Physical Chemistry and spent the years until 1906 strengthening it. The department was at its prime in 1899, and it was common to have forty students from around the world in Ostwald’s laboratory. Research on such a large scale required special methods, and those developed by Ostwald are still seen in university research groups. Mature scientists acted as assistants to Ostwald and as liaison officers between Ostwald and the students. Each problem to be studied was chosen by consultation between Ostwald and the student. There were weekly seminars to present and discuss research progress. This way Ostwald exerted his influence on each investigation, though he did not directly participate in each one.

Many to-be-famous chemists worked in Ostwald’s laboratory. Among them were Arrhenius (Nobel Prize in 1903), van’t Hoff (Nobel Prize in 1901), Walther Hermann Nernst (Nobel Prize in 1920), and Americans Theodore William Richards, Arthur Amos Noyes, and Gilbert Newton Lewis. This...

(The entire section is 2047 words.)