Adventures in Ethics and Science

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.


  1. #1 eric scerri
    November 23, 2006

    Thanks for blogging this article Janet. I think its the first time History and Philosophy of Chemistry has made any major newspaper, let alone the NYT.

    The section of whether Mendeleev peeked at De Chancourtoi’s table was rather typically selected from a longer interview that was published on the UCLA News website. Controversy is everything in the newsmedia of course .

    I did indeed say that I find it hard to believe that Mendeleev did not know anything about the work of some of the generally acknowledged precursors. However De Chancourtois was almost certainly unknown to Mendeleev and other discoveres of the system. He only published in a geological journal and the work was only rediscovered 30 years later by a couple of chemists, one French and the other English incidentally.

    I do think that Mendeleev probably knew of the work of Newlands and Odling but just decided not to cite them. He was after all the self-proclaimed Newton of chemistry and probably did not want to diminish his own claim to fame.

    Eric Scerri,
    (author of The Periodic Table: Its Story and Its Significance, OUP, 2006).

  2. #2 Prup aka Jim Benton
    November 26, 2006

    Nyet, nyet
    Was LOBACHEVSKY plagiarist
    not Mendeleev
    (the name doesn’t scan properly)

    (long-time Tom Lehrer fan
    “From Dneipepetrovsk to Alexandrov to Petropavlovsk by way of the East and over Rossisk
    to Omsk to Tomsk to Pinsk to Minsk to me the news will run.”
    done from 20 yr old memory if I
    messed up any)

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