The emergence of physical chemistry

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Wilhelm Ostwald and Physical Chemistry

at the University of Tartu

Vello Past

University of Tartu (Estonia), Department of Chemistry
W.Ostwald was one of the most prolific, imaginative and influential scientists of his time. He was the leading figure in the establishment of physical chemistry as a separate discipline. W.Ostwald was a pioneer in the contemporary study of catalysis for which he received the Nobel Prize for chemistry (1909). He was born 150 years ago 2 IX 1853 in Riga and educated from 1872 at the University of Tartu (Dorpat). From 1875 he became an assistant in the physical and from 1880 in the chemical institute of this University. At the University of Tartu W.Ostwald received his doctoral degree in chemistry (1878) and began teaching chemistry as private docent. From the beginning of 1882 he became the professor of chemistry at the Riga Polytechnic. 6 years later W.Ostwald was appointed professor of physical chemistry and afterwards director of the Physical-chemical Institute in the University of Leipzig. He retired at the age of 53 and spent his remaining years working as "free" professor at his estate in Grossbothen. He died in 1932. W.Ostwald as a researcher established his reputation by studying chemical affinity, i.e. chemical equilibrium and reaction kinetics. In Tartu he pioneered the important technique of using changes in physical properties, such as volume and refractive index to investigate chemical reactions in a quantitative way

The emergence of physical chemistry as a separate discipline culminated in Germany in 1887-1888. However, the formation of the new branch of science was facilitated by physico-chemical research at the universities of various countries. In this respect the University of Tartu also made a remarkable contribution. The year 1850 marked a turning point in the development of chemistry in Tartu when the independent chair of chemistry as a department of the new Faculty of Physics and Mathematics was established. From the very beginning, favorable conditions for research in chemistry, and especially in its new fields, were created at the department. It was Carl Schmidt (1822-1894), professor of chemistry in Tartu for 40 years, whose merits were the greatest. Schmidt was not only the first-rate scientist and one of the best analysts of his time but also a highly esteemed teacher who trained outstanding chemists, such as Johann Lemberg, Wilhelm Ostwald and Gustav Tammann. J. Lemberg (1842-1902) carried out a profound research of chemical transformations of natural silicates and was the first to use the law of mass action for the explanation of his results. Under his influence the students became aware of an essential role of chemical equilibria everywhere. Lemberg had the strongest influence on the formation of Ostwald as an excellent experimentator and a chemist interested in exact measurements. The study initiated by Lemberg and Ostwald was very fruitfully advanced by G.Tammann (1861-1938) in the last two decades of the 19th century. In Tamman´s early works that were mostly devoted to the experimental study of the principal aspects of the theory of solutions. From the mid-1890s Tammann together with his co-workers undertook a thorough investigation into the problems of heterogeneous equilibrium. Investigating the properties of ice at high pressures he detected in Tartu two new modifications of ice (ice II and III).
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