The New York Times has taken notice of the history and philosophy of chemistry in a small piece about a new book, The Periodic Table: Its Story and Significance by Eric R. Scerri. In particular, the Times piece notes the issue of whether Dimitri Ivanovich Mendeleev was “borrowing” from the work of others (without acknowledging that he had done so) when he put forward his version of the periodic table of the elements:
The first [of six scientists who formulated periodic tables before Mendeleev] was a French geologist named Alexandre Emile Béguyer de Chancourtois, but his publisher was unable to publish the complex diagram of the periodic table that he submitted with the article, according to Scerri, a chemist at the University of California at Los Angeles.
Although Mendeleev said the idea for the table came to him in a dream one night during a time when he toiled over a textbook, the Russian probably had a peek at Chancourtois’ work.
“I frankly don’t believe it,” Scerri, in a prepared statement, said of Mendeleev’s historical claims. “Mendeleev wasn’t isolated in Siberia, which is the way he is sometimes portrayed. He spoke all the major European languages, was familiar with the literature and had traveled in Europe. He mentioned the precursors of the periodic table, but not the ones who actually devised systems. He surely must have known about them.”
Does this mean Mendeleev should be knocked out of the scientific pantheon? No. His version of the table became the standard and the fundamental organizing principle of modern chemistry. He also championed the idea until it became widely accepted, and he was a celebrated scientific figure who helped refine industrial chemistry.
Mendeleev should have acknowledged any earlier versions of the periodic table of which he was aware — even if he didn’t feel that they had influenced his own thinking in formulating his famous version of the periodic table. That’s how scientists are supposed to behave.
Why wouldn’t he acknowledge the efforts of other scientists here? It beats me. I don’t know whether the project of systematizing was viewed differently by Mendeleev and his colleagues than, say, discovery of a new substance or a new reaction. I also don’t know whether animosity toward the French (which seems to come up a lot in the history of science) could explain his lapse in acknowledging Chancourtois’ work. Or maybe it was standard issue human frailty
Indeed, my sense is that Mendeleev probably had very little to lose by acknowledging earlier versions of the periodic table, simply because his was a more useful way to systematize the elements. Chemists already knew that there were important chemical trends to attend to. Mendeleev’s table captured the organizing principles that made the most sense of these trends.