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J. J. Berzelius
Jöns Jacob Berzelius.jpg
Jöns Jacob Berzelius (1779–1848)
Born (1779-08-20)20 August 1779
Väversunda, Östergötland, Sweden
Died 7 August 1848(1848-08-07) (aged 68)
Nationality Sweden
Alma mater Uppsala University
Known for Atomic weights
Chemical notation
Awards Copley medal (1836)
Scientific career
Fields Chemistry
Institutions Karolinska Institute
Doctoral advisor Johann Afzelius
Doctoral students James Finlay Weir Johnston
Heinrich Rose

Jöns Jakob Berzelius (20 August 1779 – 7 August 1848) was a Swedish chemist. He invented the modern chemical notation. Berzelius, John Dalton and Antoine Lavoisier are said to be the fathers of modern chemistry.

Early years

Berzelius was born in the parish of Väversunda in Östergötland in Sweden. He attended the school today known as Katedralskolan. He then enrolled at Uppsala University, where he learned the profession of medical doctor from 1796 to 1801; Anders Gustaf Ekeberg, the discoverer of tantalum, taught him chemistry.

He worked as an apprentice in a pharmacy and with a physician in the Medevi mineral springs. During this time, he conducted analysis of the spring water. For his medical studies, he examined the influence of galvanic current on several diseases and graduated as M.D. in 1802. He worked as physician near Stockholm until the mine-owner Wilhelm Hisinger discovered his analytical abilities and provided him with a laboratory. Between 1808 and 1836, Berzelius worked together with Anna Sundström, who acted as his assistant.

Jean Pierre David dAngers Jacob Berzelius
Bust of Jacob Berzelius, bronze, 1836, outside the Administration building, Karolinska Institutet, Solna, Sweden

In 1807, Berzelius was appointed professor in chemistry and pharmacy at the Karolinska Institute.

In 1808, he was elected a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. In 1818, Berzelius was elected the Academy's secretary and held the post until 1848. During Berzelius' tenure, he is credited with revitalising the Academy and bringing it into a second golden era. He was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1822. In 1827, he became correspondent of the Royal Institute of the Netherlands, and in 1830 associate member. In 1837, he was elected a member of the Swedish Academy.


Not long after going to Stockholm, Berzelius wrote a chemistry textbook for his medical students. While doing experiments for the textbook, he found that inorganic compounds are made of different elements in proportion by weight.

Based on this, in 1828, he created a table of relative atomic weights. On this table, oxygen was set to 100. The table had all of the elements known at the time. This work gave evidence of the atomic hypothesis that chemical compounds are made of atoms combined in whole number amounts.

In order to help his experiments, Berzelius created a system of chemical notation. In this notation, the elements were given simple written labels, for example, O for oxygen, or Fe for iron. The proportions of the elements was shown by numbers. This is the same basic system used today.

Berzelius skrivbord 2013
Berzelius desk exhibited at Stockholm's old observatory

Berzelius found the chemical elements silicon, selenium, thorium, and cerium. Students working in Berzelius laboratory also found lithium and vanadium.

Berzelius was the first person to show the difference between organic compounds (those made with carbon), and inorganic compounds. He helped Gerhardus Johannes Mulder in his analysis of organic compounds such as coffee, tea and many proteins. The term "protein" itself was created by Berzelius, after Mulder noticed that all proteins seemed to have the same formula and might be made of a single type of a (very large) molecule.

Berzelius wrote a great deal. He helped many leading scientists (such as Mulder, Claude Louis Berthollet, Humphry Davy, Friedrich Wöhler and Eilhard Mitscherlich), and many less-notable scientists.

Summary of achievements

  • Law of definte proportions
  • Chemical formula
  • Discovered chemical elements
  • Recognised organic compounds; named proteins


Berzelii park Stockholm Sweden
Statue of Berzelius in the center of Berzelii Park, Stockholm

In 1818 Berzelius was ennobled by King Carl XIV Johan; in 1835, at the age of 56, he married Elisabeth Poppius, the daughter of a Swedish cabinet minister, and in the same year was elevated to friherre.

Berzeliusskolan, a school situated next to his alma mater, Katedralskolan, is named for him. In 1939 his portrait appeared on a series of postage stamps commemorating the bicentenary of the founding of the Swedish Academy of Sciences.

He died on 7 August 1848 at his home in Stockholm, where he had lived since 1806.


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