Volume 27, Number 1

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Bull. Hist. Chem., VOLUME 27, Number 1  (2002)

During the nineteenth century and up to 1917, Russian

chemists produced a significant number of “cutting-

edge” advances in all branches of chemistry.  Indeed,

one could plausibly argue that–considering the size of

the chemical community–Russian chemists were among

the most productive chemists at that time.  Some of these

advances in chemical theory and practice produced by

Russian chemists were quickly acknowledged by the

international community of chemists, while others were

not.  In still other cases, the Russian chemists them-

selves did not follow up their discoveries with addi-

tional investigations.  Many different factors–such as

being on the scientific periphery–influenced these de-

cisions and the reception of these discoveries.

In this paper, I will examine the scientific and cul-

tural contexts of one of the earliest and most important

discoveries by a Russian chemist during the nineteenth

century: Nikolai Zinin’s reduction of nitrobenzene to

produce aniline in 1842.  This work done by Zinin is

particularly interesting because it later became the key

step in the synthesis of many coal tar dyes and was the

basis for the explosion of the German chemical indus-

try during the second half of the nineteenth century.

Zinin was well positioned to take the lead in the

development of coal tar dyes.  He was trained in Liebig’s

laboratory and closely allied himself with Liebig’s vi-

sion of chemistry.  His research interests centered on

reactions of various aromatic compounds, which became

important building blocks in the production of synthetic

dyes.  Yet Zinin did not follow up his initial discovery

of 1842 with additional investigations of this reaction

and he seemed oblivious to the rapid development of

the synthetic dye industry during the late 1850s and



Nathan M. Brooks, New Mexico State University

1860s.  In 1867 at the Paris International Exhibition,

D.I. Mendeleev reported that Zinin was astonished by

the exhibitions of synthetic dyes.  Why did Zinin not

see the potential usefulness of his reaction and why did

he not participate in the development of synthetic dyes?

Instead of Zinin, it was August Wilhelm von

Hofmann, who took the lead in developing the theoreti-

cal and practical basis for the coal tar dye industry.

Hofmann had also studied with Liebig during the same

years that Zinin was in Giessen.  Immediately after Zinin

published his work, Hofmann realized the value of

Zinin’s reaction and devoted much attention to under-

standing and developing it as a practical tool.  Other

chemists also studied aniline, as well as Zinin’s reac-

tion.  What was it in Zinin’s environment or background

that conditioned his actions?

Nikolai Nikolaevich Zinin was born in 1812 in

Shusha, a small town in the Caucasus region, where his

father was serving as an officer in the Russian army (1).

Shortly after Zinin’s birth, however, both of his parents

died in some sort of epidemic, and he went to live with

his uncle in Saratov, on the Volga River.  Zinin received

a good education at the local gymnasium and excelled

at ancient languages, as well as mathematics and phys-

ics.  Although he initially planned to attend a technical

institute in St. Petersburg after graduation from the gym-

nasium, the death of his uncle induced him to attend

Kazan’ University, which was considerably less expen-

sive than an institution in the northern capital.  Kazan’

is located on the Volga River, about 500 miles east of

Moscow, and for years it was the easternmost univer-

sity in Europe.

Bull. Hist. Chem., VOLUME 27, Number 1  (2002)


Zinin enrolled at Kazan’ University in 1830, when

it was slowly recovering from the deleterious effects of

M.L. Magnitskii’s seven-

year rule as curator of the

Kazan’ Educational District

during 1819-1826 (2).  In

the years before he went to

Kazan’, Magnitskii served

as a provincial governor

and had gained recognition

for his attempts to cleanse

the province of “atheistic

influences.”  Upon appoint-

ment as curator, Magnitskii

at first attempted to close

down Kazan’ University

because of its atheism and

immorality but grudgingly

settled for dismissing those

professors whose teaching

Magnitskii found to be in-

sufficiently Christian, as

well as many of the foreign-

ers who taught at the uni-

versity.  In 1820,

Magnitskii drew up instruc-

tions that specified how

professors should teach

their subjects from a reli-

gious point of view.  For example, professors of as-

tronomy were to demonstrate “how the omniscience of

the Creator is written in fiery letters in the heavenly bod-

ies, and how the beautiful laws of the celestial universe

were revealed to mankind in the most distant past” (3).

Magnitskii’s instructions were copied by other universi-

ties and led to mass dismissals at these institutions as

well.  However, Magnitskii and the other officials in both

the central and provincial administrations who held simi-

lar values became increasingly mystical in their pro-

nouncements of this new conservatism and finally drew

opposition from the Russian Orthodox Church.  In 1826,

Magnitskii was dismissed and replaced as curator by M.

N. Musin-Pushkin, a wealthy nobleman, whose family

lived near Kazan’.

Although the traditional view claims that it took 25

years for Kazan’ University to recover fully from the

effects of Magnitskii, in reality, Curator Musin-Pushkin

quickly acted to improve the teaching and research at

the university (4).  With the assistance of the mathema-

tician Nikolai Ivanovich Lobachevskii, who was the

University Rector–essentially, the university president–

the new curator secured funds to build new classrooms,

laboratories, and other facilities and worked to build up

the faculty ranks, which had

been decimated by Magnitskii’s

actions (5).  Zinin was a direct

beneficiary of Musin-Pushkin’s


Zinin entered the physics-

mathematics faculty as a “state

student,” who would receive a

free education in return for

agreeing to work for the Russian

government for a specified pe-

riod of time following gradua-

tion. This type of arrangement

was vital for the state at this time

because relatively few nobles,

who could afford to pay tuition,

entered the universities, and few

of them remained until gradua-

tion.  Thus when the state

wanted to reduce its reliance on

foreign-born professors, as it did

in the 1810s and 1820s, it

needed to provide support for

students such as Zinin, who was

not a member of the nobility.

Kazan’ University was in par-

ticular need of Russian profes-

sors as many of the foreign-born professors at the uni-

versity had been purged during the Magnitskii years (6).

In his studies, Zinin primarily concentrated on as-

tronomy, taught by Professor Ivan Matveevich Simonov,

and mathematics, taught by Lobachevskii.  As part of

the requirements for students in the physics-mathemat-

ics faculty, he also took courses in chemistry from Pro-

fessor Ivan Ivanovich Dunaev, who had been teaching

chemistry at Kazan’ University since 1811 (7).  The

available evidence indicates that Dunaev conducted little

or no laboratory work himself and that he likely had an

outdated knowledge of chemical theory.  Dunaev’s lec-

tures in chemistry were presented without lecture dem-

onstrations until 1832 when he was compelled by the

university administration to introduce some demonstra-

tions, as well as some minimal laboratory training for

the students.  While the premises of the chemistry labo-

ratory were quite substandard, Professor Adol’f

Iakovlevich Kupfer (who had taught at Kazan’ Univer-

sity during the 1820s) had managed to supply it with

adequate supplies and equipment (8).

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