Greatest Chemists of All-Time

January 11th, 2011

Late last week, the editors at Nature Chemistry conducted a Twitter poll to answer the age-old question: “Who is the greatest chemist of all-time?”  Such a conversation falls right in my wheelhouse, and in honour of the lads at NChem, I am going to write this post in English.  (I am qualified to do this, as my mother’s from England.)

The results of the poll are summarized on the NChem blog, Sceptical Chymist.  Of the 86 votes cast, the following chemists received three or more:

Linus Pauling (16)
Dmitri Mendeleev (11)
Antoine Lavoisier (7)
Marie Curie (6)
R.B. Woodward (4)
Michael Faraday (4)
Gilbert Lewis (3)

Perhaps Sir Winston Churchill was right when he said, “the best argument against a democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”  Incidentally, please follow my Twitter feed (@ChemBark) if you are interested in reading about what I eat for dinner.

With all due respect to my Twitter “tweeps”,  are you daft?  Who picks Marie Curie as the greatest chemist ever?  Yes, she was a fantastic chemist.  She might be most inspirational chemist ever, but the greatest ever?  How could six of you agree on that?

Here’s how I see it using football as an analogy: if Pauling is Manchester United, Curie is Everton; she’s right up there in the top flight, but she’s not qualifying for the Champions League.

There were some other head-scratchers in the also-rans:  Moseley? Noyori? Walden? Cannizzaro?  Don’t get me wrong, they are all great chemists too, but number one?  And let’s go back to Mendeleev.  Yes, the concept of the periodic table is fantastic—and Mendeleev was robbed of a Nobel Prize for it—but I don’t think that this contribution alone is enough to justify a number-one vote.  Others chemists made similar observations as Mendeleev, and even then the work was incomplete.  The work in quantum mechanics that explains why the Periodic Table appears as it does is a greater contribution than the table itself.

Coming up with a rank-ordered list of the greatest chemists is a tough task, but I took a stab at it in the NChem comments thread.  (Since then, I’ve decided to swap my #3 and #4.)

Top 5 Chemists…EVER

5.  R. B. Woodward

He is the supreme deity of organic chemistry, and I’m still not sure he belongs in the top 5.  Nevertheless, the magnitude of his accomplishments in a career that spanned the heyday of the field is humbling.  He won the Nobel Prize in ’65 for his work in organic synthesis, and could have shared in two others: the ’73 prize for organometallics and the ’81 prize for orbital symmetry (the Woodward-Hoffmann rules).

4.  Antoine Lavoisier

A rigorous experimentalist with major contributions to the understanding of gases, nomenclature, chemical education, and analytical chemistry.

3. Willard Gibbs

Laid out the foundation of chemical thermodynamics.  Kind of important.

2.  G.N. Lewis

Discovered the covalent bond and made major contributions to chemical thermodynamics, photochemistry, and acid-base theory.  He probably should have won a share of the ’34 Nobel Prize for the discovery of deuterium.

1.  Linus Pauling

Number one despite his rampant medical quackery.  Applied quantum mechanics to understanding the nature of the chemical bond—a concept that lies at the very heart of chemistry.  Also made major contributions to structural biology, particularly the structure of proteins.  He might have won the race to the structure of DNA had he been privy to the same data as Watson and Crick.

My confidence in these assignments is low; I could easily have overlooked something.  Feel free to ridicule me in the comments.  And just for fun, here’s a blast from the past: my 2006 list of greatest organic chemists.


44 Responses to “Greatest Chemists of All-Time”

  1. Stu Says:

    The Sceptical Chymist blog is inconveniently down at the moment… please do check back on some of Paul’s links once we’ve resuscitated it…

  2. Neil Says:

    Cor blimey, guv’nor, it’s a pickle and no mistake!

    I definitely agree with Gibbs, Lavoisier and Pauling in a top 5, but might think of others to fill a top 5 of my own.

    And I think you’ve also skewered the vague feelings of unease I had about Curie and Mendeleev being Teh Greatest pretty accurately.

    If we’re on football analogies, who is the Wolves of chemistry? Great in the 1950s (and I mean really really great), bit of joke since then. Maybe we’re the phlogiston of phootball…

  3. Paul Says:

    (Updated) Just so I’m clear, because this is very important:

    NChem & NPG
    Stu = ManU
    Neil = Wolves
    Gavin = Sunderland
    Steve = West Ham
    Peter (?) = Arsenal (+ partial support of Bristol Rovers)

    Chem Bloggers
    Me = Bristol Rovers
    Matt from SG = Arsenal

    Who else? Any regular commenters going to speak up?

  4. Stu Says:

    Yep – that’s right. And Steve (our Boston-based editor) is a West Ham fan – and as it turns out you have something in common with the chief editor of NatureNano – he’s mostly an Arsenal fan, but does have quite a soft spot for Bristol Rovers…

  5. Matt Says:

    In this analogy, wouldn’t that put Haber as Chelsea? Haber was really really good. But one of the reasons why he had so much impact was because the German oligarchy and BASF threw money at nitrogen fixation for the sake of their own personal satisfaction (much like some other Russian oligarch who runs Chelsea). Maybe Bosch would be the Mourinho. (Maybe that’s the wrong comparison).

    Paul’s list includes folks who influenced the nature of the field of chemistry. I think that my list would add a few who discovered really important processes that are still vital for our everyday lives. Haber is one of these. Who else should we choose? Ziegler/Natta?

  6. Fleatamer Says:

    for an organic chemist Christopher Ingold has to be up there, but he’s not even in your 2006 organic top ten list

  7. Paul Says:

    @Fleatamer: Sir Christopher received an honorable mention

  8. Stu Says:

    Back on topic somewhat, do Staudinger and Carothers deserve honourable mentions for laying the foundations of polymer chemistry as we know it today – which is fairly important…!

  9. Paul Says:

    Carothers might be one of the most overlooked/underappreciated chemists of all time.

    But…not close to cracking my top 20.

  10. Chemjobber Says:

    Hey, Paul:

    Since us Americans are too dumb to get all this Premiere League stuff, could we get a translation into baseball and/or football teams? kthxbai cj

  11. pi* Says:

    van’t hoff invented the 3rd dimension, and won the first noble prize for the discovering the laws of chemical dynamics…

  12. Paul Says:

    @CJ: The analogy fails in American sports, because there is a playoff system, more parity, and no system of relegation.

    Maybe the best comparison is baseball. Pauling is the Yankees. Curie might be the Rockies—in the Majors (vs. AAA or AA ball) and generally solid, but not a powerhouse. (The problem is that these sorts of teams sometimes go deep into the playoffs, which don’t exist in England—to determine EPL champions, at least.)

  13. Stu Says:

    How about a cricket analogy then – it’s not that different to baseball ;-)

  14. excimer Says:

    A “greatest chemists” list is anything but- it just reflects the bias of the list’s creator as to the meaning of “great.”

    That said, here’s mine:
    5. Hodgkin
    4. Woodward
    3. Langmuir
    2. Lavoisier
    1. Pauling

  15. El Selectride Says:

    The English pretense is amusing, but chemistry was done in places other that 20th-century America.

    Lavoisier financed his science as a tax collector, but is unimpeachably in the top 5.

    Perkin is missing from your Organic list, even as an honorable mention. Arguably, he is single-handedly responsible for the modern pharmaceutical industry.

    No love for Dalton? Lewis, for example, couldn’t have done jack without Dalton. The Atomic Theory is pretty fundamental stuff. Think of the people covered in Gen. Chem. classes… Woodward’s definitely the odd man out.

    For sheer impact outside of the field of chemistry, I have to put Thomas Midgley, Jr. at #1–tetraethyllead and CFCs, even if he is both a 20th-century American, and a Bad Guy.

  16. El Selectride Says:

    And to make a “real football” analogy, your list is like saying the 5 greatest QBs of all time are Tom Brady, Peton Manning, Brett Favre, Drew Brees, and Steve Young.

  17. Neil Says:

    @El Selectride
    In Paul’s defence, 1 of his list is an 18th century Frenchman and another is from the 19th century (OK, so Gibbs was American).

    I’m glad to see someone putting Dalton forward too – in the UK at least, he’s generally considered the ‘father of chemistry’. But I also wonder how easy it is to separate his ideas from those of his contempories, like Mendeleev. I’m not enough of a chemical historian to judge his significance.

    I think that’s even more of a problem when thinking about all the mid-19th century chemists (eg Perkin). Their work kind of falls between the extremely fundamental of Lavoisier/Boyle/Dalton, but is a long way from what chemists are doing now.

    And, just to get back to our original discussion, there really isn’t just one person who you can call The Greatest Chemist. At least, not without a lot of arguing, as we’re seeing. Would it better if there was one? Should we (OK, IUPAC/ACS/RSC) poll all chemists and elect one??

  18. Chemjobber Says:

    Okay, okay, what we really need is a Chemists’ Hall of Fame. Who’s the entering class?

  19. Stu Says:

    @Chemjobber – what are the rules? – How many inductees, what’s the criteria, etc…?

  20. sam Says:

    Just to defend Curie, she was the only person to win Nobels in both Chemistry and Physics. The only other person to win two in different fields was Pauling, but his second one was in Peace. Her work was key in understanding radioactivity and nuclear reactions. But I understand Paul’s reluctance to name her in the top 5, because there were so many amazing folks at the turn of the century!

  21. CR Says:

    If you are going to use a football analogy, at least use real football teams.

    Steelers, Patriots, Cowboys, etc.

    Not these pussy footed (pun intended) soccer teams….

  22. valence Says:

    I like the thinking and logic behind your list Paul, and I would choose Pauling as #1. However, in creating a ‘greatest of all-time list’ you cannot ignore the dimension of time. Some people are greater because they were afforded an opportunity for a broad-based, fundamental discovery early in the development of a discipline that others later built upon for their discoveries. In that vein, I would put Mendeleev #2. Similar to Newton in Physics and Watson and Crick in Biology, without Mendeleev’s fundamental insight, future insights would have been considerably delayed.

  23. joel Says:

    1. Pauling
    2. Lavoisier
    3. Arrhenius
    4. Ostwald
    5. Haber

  24. Mike Says:

    Swap out Woodward with E.O. Fischer and you got my list.

  25. Hap Says:

    Do we have to drug test? I really don’t want to have to sit through any “Bagwell could have been juicing, so he’s out” discussions in chemistry.

  26. lejuscara Says:

    I’ve been a fan of Kelvin, but Wikipedia places him firmly as a physicist. I think of him more as the greatest chemical engineer.

  27. yonemoto Says:

    Yeah. Emil Fisher.

    He was so awesome they named a chemical supplies company after him!

    I think the great thing about all the people in the list is that they were basically chemistry POLYMATHS. Due to specialization, I don’t think that we’ll ever see chemists like that again, and that’s why Curie, Haber, Ziegler/Natta, and Kwolek shouldn’t be on the list, despite discovering some pretty important, life-changing stuff.

    Langmuir should be on the list, but he’s not well-known enough to make a “greatest” list. Irv was da man.

  28. El Selectride Says:

    @yonemoto

    Dalton and Langmuir are the only guys who still have eponymous journals–we’re still waiting on “Woodward Transactions.”

    Drop Woodward for Dalton and then we’re talking.

    I’m a Maxwell fan, but he probably goes to physics, too.

  29. yonemoto Says:

    Don’t get me wrong, I love langmuir, but I didn’t even know that much about him (and the journal) as an undergrad working in a surface chemistry lab, and didn’t find out much more until grad school when I was curious exactly who langmuir and blodgett were. Langmuir used to be a household name, but the half life on him was amazing. You could ask a high school chemistry student, and they would know 4, 3, 2, and 1 if they did their homework, but langmuir would be squarely in the “who dat?” category.

  30. Chemjobber Says:

    @Stu:

    Don’t really know. The baseball Hall of Fame had 5 inductees in its first class; their inclusion (IIRC) is considered obvious/inarguable.

    Wikipedia says: “Five years after retirement, any player with 10 years of major league experience who passes a screening committee (which removes from consideration players of clearly lesser qualification) is eligible to be elected by BBWAA [baseball writers association] members with 10 years’ membership or more. From a final ballot typically including 25–40 candidates, each writer may vote for up to 10 players; until the late 1950s, voters were advised to cast votes for the maximum 10 candidates. Any player named on 75% or more of all ballots cast is elected. A player who is named on fewer than 5% of ballots is dropped from future elections.”

    So it’s 1) senior baseball writers who vote on 2) players 5 years after retirement and 3) you need a super-majority to win entry.

    From a statistical point of view, it’s probably the top 1% to 3% of players. I expect that if we were to develop a chemists’ HoF, it’s drawing the bottom limit that’s really hard.

  31. Stu Says:

    I quite like the idea of a (somewhat informal) HoF for chemists! – I guess it’s just a matter getting together the equivalent of senior baseball writers (chemistry bloggers/editors/commenters?) – but how many of these would we realistically need? Then putting in place a nomination mechanism (via blogs?). And then the question arises of whether we consider active chemists or just those who have either retired/gone to the great laboratory in the sky… it’s just a bit of fun, but might be an interesting exercise. Unless the ACS wish to do a more formal thing… – but I guess things like this just don’t exist for scientists (well, perhaps NAS or Royal Society membership equates?)…

  32. Matt Says:

    @Stu and @CJ
    I think that NAS/Royal Society membership does equate. And, I think that is your starting point. Should any chemist who is in NAS/Royal Society automatically get in?
    Then you’re left with the part of the equation that CJ is concerned with. NAS/Royal society doesn’t value chemists in the same way that chemists do. How do you choose from the entrants at the bottom limit.

  33. The Chemistry of Caramel | ScienceGeist Says:

    [...] This post and poll generated lots of chatter and strong opinions, which included Paul expanding on his top-5 chemists. Icanhasscience has some really fun ideas (including possibly utilizing Lady Gaga and, dare I say [...]

  34. Wolfie Says:

    This time it is almost serious.

    The most important chemist of all times is this one :

    http://www.abcgallery.com/T/teniers/teniers7.html

    Do you recognize the professor and the graduate student ?

    From a litttle cabinet in Palazzo Pitti, Firenze, Italy.

  35. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    I am surprised by the complete absence of Fred Sanger who probably contributed more to biology and medicine than any other chemist. See my own post for more details.

  36. anonymous coward Says:

    I nominate peter schultz!

    http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1012276108

  37. Brian Says:

    I was thinking the same thing as Wavefunction. Plus, Sanger won the nobel twice – both in chemistry. Would one be wrong to argue that, as a resume builder specifically for greatest chemist of all time, those count more than Curie’s chem and physics nobels? Just a thought.

    I’m sure many of you saw the feature from gonzo over at Science about a general science hall of fame. For those of you who haven’t, he talks of a data mining approach to quantify scientists’ fame based on the number of times their full names are mentioned in books. I’m sure it has its flaws, such as chemists who are famous for things other than chemistry, or those who are perhaps infamous. Still, it would be interesting to include weight this somehow in the election process. Having a bunch of distinguished scientists (some with big egos) decide the process also seems like it is susceptible to some bias. At least this data mining approach would be relatively free of bias and potentially provide useful metrics to set a threshold for induction.

  38. revathi Says:

    What about Van der waal? Actually, it is too difficult to name just five. The best idea is to take one person from each branch. This way, Fischer, Lavoisier, Vant Hoff, Arrhenius and Pauling would be on my list. Perhaps Micheal Farraday?

  39. Wolfie Says:

    and so it goes, when you trust to Wikipedia °! whoheiii !!!

  40. Science: Who is the most famous or successful chemist in the world today? - Quora Says:

    [...] add comment at this time.  Malcolm Sargeant, Trained as chemist moved into computers see http://blog.chembark.com/2011/01…for a list of chemists who laid the foundations.5:24amView All 0 CommentsCannot add comment at this [...]

  41. wolfie Says:

    how about me ?

  42. Renea Says:

    I vote for Dmitri Mendeleyev. He devised the Periodic table and even predicted more elements would be discovered later. How impressive is that?!

  43. ChemBark » Blog Archive » The 2011 Chemmy Award Winners, Part 1 of 2 Says:

    [...] from his past. Before I lambast the man, let me start by calling attention to the fact that I rank Pauling as the greatest chemist of all-time. That said, he had his share of spectacular failures. [...]

  44. JABER Says:

    I AM SORRY FOR YOU ITS HARD FOR YOU TO BELIVE JABER IBN HAYYAN IS THE GREATEST CHEMIST I CAN SAY JUST THIS IM SORRY FOR YOU


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