Jöns Jacob Berzelius: physician, scientist, and globetrotter

Frank Wollheim


Figure 1. Berzelius around 1807

Jöns Jacob Berzelius (1779-1848) was not only the enigmatic Swedish chemist of his time but also an accomplished medical doctor, active humanitarian, co-founder of the Karolinska Institute, and secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for thirty years. He also mastered the pen, leaving 7000 letters, several books, diaries, and an autobiography.1 Based on humanitarian and literary merits, he became a member of the Swedish Academy in 1822. We can follow his life in great detail through his writing. This story is based on his diaries from two journeys in Europe.2

When leaving the lighthouse Vinga outside Gothenburg in June 1812, the sailing ship Diana had a crew of eight men and only three passengers. The ship made five knots on the sunny first day, then hit a storm and all the passengers became seasick. Later the ship was approached by pirates, who had to be repelled by its six canons. It was a relief when on 29 June they landed at Harwich and were able to take a coach to London. Berzelius had travelled extensively in Sweden but this was his first trip away from Scandinavia. At age thirty-three he was already a famous scientist and professor at the new Karolinska Institute, of which he was a co-founder. He had corresponded with scientists in France since the turn of the century and his friend, Claude Louis Berthollet, also a physician and chemist (and unlike Lavoisier a survivor of the French revolution), had invited him to his home and to work at his Société d’Arceuil in Arceuil outside of Paris. In 1810 Napoleon’s field marshal Jean Baptiste Bernadotte had been elected to the Swedish throne, and Berthollet had urged Bernadotte to contact Berzelius, who thus became a friend of royalty as well as recipient of funds for travel. In 1812 a planned trip to France had to be cancelled because Napoleon’s Grand Armé was marching through continental Europe, but as England ruled “the waves” the destination was changed.

From London, Berzelius writes enthusiastically about a meeting of the Royal Society in an inn close to the Greenwich Observatory, where he was seated opposite of its president, Sir Joseph Banks, near Sir William Herschel, and between William Wollaston and Thomas Young. Also present was James Watt, whose steam engines now were all over England. Herschel was originally a musician from Germany, but he had become an astronomer and helped by his wife had discovered the planet Uranus. Berzelius was invited to his observatory in Slough. Thomas Young was best known for fundamental discoveries on the nature of light and color vision but was also an expert in philosophy, art, and Egyptology, and had made important contributions by deciphering the Rosetta Stone. William Hyde Wollaston, the forty-seven-year-old secretary of the Royal Society had discovered the rare earth metals rodium and palladium, and Berzelius developed a close friendship with him, spent much time in his elegant laboratory, and was impressed by the simple means with which he demonstrated the presence of uric acid in a small fragment of a friend’s kidney stone. Important discussions dealt with the atom theory of Dalton, which was a basic component of Berzelius’ observations on the distinct proportions of elements in molecules. Wollaston guided Berzelius around London; he was more impressed by the laboratories he worked in than by the churches or art galleries, but he admired the view from the tower of St. Paul’s.

A main purpose of the journey was to meet Sir Humphrey Davy, the most distinguished British chemist of that time. He was also famous for his work with laughing gas, and suggested its use for anesthesia some twenty years before Horace Wells in Boston. Davy and Berzelius had become acquainted through extensive correspondence, and in their groundbreaking electrochemical work both had made early use of the voltaic pile invented in 1799 by the Italian physicist Alessandro Volta. Berzelius had initiated Davy’s election to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and had brought the insignia from Stockholm. When they finally met, Davy responded by nominating Berzelius to the Royal Society. After spending the day in the lab, which had the messy look of a real chemistry lab, Berzelius was entertained with an extravagant dinner in Davy’s splendid home and afterwards was taken to the opera. Berzelius was a true opera fan and made a point of arriving in time for the performance, unlike others who came only at the end just in time to enjoy the added-on ballet. He was fortunate to hear the Italian star Angelica Catalani as Susanna in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro.

Berzelius was duly impressed by the new gaslights on Pall Mall and by how comfortable the springy stage coaches were, but complained about how expensive it was to use them. In contrast to Sir Humphrey, who was wealthy thanks to his wife, Berzelius’ means were modest. But before returning home he bought several utensils for the lab in Stockholm.

Six years later, after “my most productive years,” Berzelius returned to London, again with financial help from his benefactor, who was now the King of Sweden. The king had also knighted him. Berzelius travelled in company with his friend Gustav Löwenhjelm, the Swedish ambassador to France. This was the start of a fourteen-month journey through England, France, Switzerland, and Germany. Sir William Wollaston, like Berzelius, suffered from gout and gave Berzelius a new medicine containing an extract of Colchicum autumnale, “naked lady,” which did not help. Berzelius was impressed by the quality of the hospitals, schools, invalid veterans’ homes, and prisons. The asylum in Bedlam could release 30 of 100 patients as “cured.” London had gas lights, not only in most streets but also indoors. In the opera he was delighted to listen to the French star Joséphine Fodor Mainvielle as Zerlina in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. He was now more comfortable speaking English and enjoyed talking to his neighbors in the theater. In his diaries he devotes five pages describing the new fashion of ladies, the adoption of which required considerable forbearance, the help of two maids, two chairs with high backrests, and which resulted in bare shoulders and lateral displacement of the breasts.

Figure 2. Berzelius around 1835

In Paris, Berzelius was greeted as a celebrity and met the very elite scientists of Europe such as Gay-Lyssac, Biot, Poisson, and Abbé René Just Haüy, the mineralogist “father of crystallography” to whom is also owed the introduction of the metric system. Berzelius was accommodated at the Löwenhjelm residence close to the Tuileries. In the theater he enjoyed Molière. He soon became so busy with work that he “had hardly any time to eat breakfast,” visiting laboratories and attending lectures by the chemists Gay-Lyssac and Thenard and the physicists Arago and Biot. He was often seated next to the presenter, and blushed when they referred to his publications. From Jean-Batista Biot he learned the latest regarding polarization of light, discovered in 1808 by Étienne-Louis Malus, who also described the double refraction in crystals in 1810. Jean-Baptiste Biot discovered in 1815 the rotation of polarized light passing through organic material. And about Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac, Berzelius wrote, “I never left him without having learnt something of interest.”

In February 1819 Berzelius moved to Arceuil, three miles south of Paris, and stayed with the Berthollets in their formidable house. Berthollet and Pierre Simon le Laplace had both served in Napoleon’s army in Egypt and Italy. Laplace was professor at the Academy Militaire and had examined Napoleon in mathematics during his time as general. The reward was Napoleon’s funding of the Socielé d’Arceil, a private academy with fifteen members, one of whom was Napoleon, the others leaders in science. Each Thursday a group of younger scientists aged 25-40 joined them from Paris and spent a day with talks, discussions, and experimenting. Berzelius acquired a devoted pupil among them, Pierre Louis Dulong. Together they determined the exact atomic weights of hydrogen, nitrogen, and carbon, and established the composition of water. Dulong later become the perpetual secretary of the French Academy of Science. While in Paris, Berzelius was elected to the same office, as secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. The Thursday work days in Arceuil ended at 5 PM when Comtesse Berthelotte served a gourmet meal. Her skills as a cook, which Berzelius also experienced at the daily breakfast table, contributed significantly to his gaining weight. Towards the end of his stay Berzelius was joined by two younger Swedish visitors and the three left Paris together, mostly on horseback, exploring several silent volcanos in the Massif Central, then passing through Lyon, Geneva, Zürich, and the Alps.

In Germany he visited the universities at Tübingen, Erlangen, Dresden, and Berlin. He was critical of the influence of Schelling’s romantic philosophy leading to the denial of Dalton’s atomic therory, ignoring the discovery of polarized light, and disregarding exact science. In Berlin he was disappointed to find that Angelica Catalani’s voice now had declined. Her high notes sounded sharp. However, he was impressed by Ellard Mitschernich’s work on isomorphic crystallography and therefore suppored his appointment to a vacant chair at the university in Berlin. It is of interest that Berzelius did not think highly of the German student unions’ martial and nationalistic attitudes. He predicted that this could eventually lead to bloody violence. He truly had a visionary mind.



  1. Jac Berzelius. Självbiografiska anteckningar. Published by HG Söderbaum. Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences 1901
  2. Jac Berzelius. Reseanteckningar. Published by HG Söderbaum. Royal Swedish Academy of Science 1903, 1-430.



FRANK A WOLLHEIM, MD, PhD, FRCP, is an emeritus professor of rheumatology at Lund University in Sweden. Born in Berlin in 1932, living in Sweden since 1937. Trained internal medicine in Malmoe under Jan Waldenström and clinical chemistry under Carl Bertil Laurel. Spent 2 years with Ralph C Williams Jr at U of Minnesota. Was professor and chairman of Rheumatology in Lund from 1982 to 1998. Awarded Master member of the American College of Rheumatology in 2000.


Spring 2019  |  Hektorama  |  Physicians of Note