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Liebig and Dumas

As Hermann Kolbe's relationships with the principal French chemists during his early career were influential on his ideas and actions, both in these years and later, we must spend some time with them.[1] A summary of the early history of the theories of substitution, nuclei, and types has been provided at the end of chapter 2. The leading personalities in this story were Liebig and Dumas, who first met as young men in Paris in 1823 and who spent the next two decades jousting with each other in developing overarching concepts in organic chemistry.

It was perhaps inevitable that these men would become rivals. Both were demon workers with extraordinarily creative minds, cultivating a field that had too many mysteries and too few facts. Both had occasion to accuse the other, sometimes justly, of experimental work that was "geschwind abet schlecht." Both had occasion to accuse the other, probably also sometimes justly, of poaching results. As violent as their disputes at times became, by 1840 they found themselves not very far apart—though neither man was then willing to admit this to the other.

In his worst moments, Liebig thought of Dumas as a true charlatan or "Schwindler" who was not above using questionable tactics or sleight of hand to achieve renown and whose greatest concern was pursuit of effect, flourish, and the rhetorical turn of phrase, all for the sake of personal ambition. For his part, Dumas often viewed Liebig as a heavy-handed and hotheaded chemical empire builder. After a brief alliance at the end of 1837 and the beginning of 1838, Liebig became


dissatisfied with the pact he had made with Dumas. In 1840 he made a "total break" from the Frenchman, the quarrel resulting from substitution theories and based upon some real issues along with some pure misunderstandings. Dumas was a "tightrope dancer," a "Jesuit," a "highwayman," and a "thief," like "nearly all Frenchmen."[2] To Berzelius, Liebig complained,

These Frenchmen truly have no feeling of true honor, no sense of justice and fairness, they have for many years been occupying themselves with theoretical speculations that are useless for science, and solely to satisfy their own vanity and arrogance; they have discovered that the word Radical must be banned and must be substituted by the word Type. This is the greatest of their discoveries. Unfortunately when I step forward there is in Germany only envy and weakness, so I stand completely alone, no one who has enough power to stand up to them supports me. In short, it is a bad time and I am very unhappy, and have turned from these miserable matters to applications of chemistry to physiology, which now interest me tremendously.[3]

Unfortunately, here again Liebig collided with Dumas, as Liebig became convinced in 1842 that Dumas had stolen his original ideas on plant and animal nutrition, and the heat of discord only became more intense.[4]

Even in the midst of some of these disputes, however, Liebig was able to recognize Dumas' merits and to concede when he had been in the wrong, and when the violence of his replies sometimes had done nothing but damage.[5] On 23 April 1850, Liebig wrote his friend C. F. Kuhlmann in Lille, whom he was about to visit to help dedicate a new factory. He was very much looking forward to seeing Dumas there, as he was anxious to renew their old friendship,

. . . since I have always very highly esteemed Herr Dumas as one of the most outstanding and ingenious men among the chemists and scientists of our day. Perhaps more than any other chemist in Europe I found myself in the position of judging and prizing the value of his work, since we very frequently encountered each other in our investigations, and have cultivated the same fields.[6]

Liebig's hopes for the encounter were realized, as he wrote to Wöhler:

We all arrived at the same time, embraced each other, and everything was fine. Dumas was extremely cordial, and looked so young that I hardly recognized him. His wife and daughter were with him, to serve as witnesses to the plans for revenge that he had brewed. On Whitsunday the celebration was splendid and merry, the next evening a banquet, to


which the civil and military leaders of Lille were invited. At the end of the banquet Dumas stood up, gave a long speech, flattered me with various puffery, and finally took a decoration for the legion d'honneur from his pocket, and handed it to me along with the brevet in the name of the President of the French Republic. I was; unprepared and thought I would faint; but I managed a speech and received an accolade. Thus he revenged himself on me. Despite all he has a magnificent nature.

The following year Liebig dedicated a new edition of his Chemische Briefe to Dumas, and the two exchanged a number of warm letters until Liebig's death in 1873.[7]

It will be noted that during the entire period over which we have followed Kolbe's early career in chapters 2 and 3, Dumas and Liebig were feuding intermittently. In fact, the interval between Kolbe's first published paper and his long review article on radicals and types precisely brackets the period when Liebig's and Dumas' relationship was at its lowest ebb. Kolbe certainly imbibed an extremely negative view of Dumas from Liebig, who was one of his idols and models and whose diatribes were often openly published in the scientific literature. Berzelius, and his former student Wöhler, the author of the Schwindler satire, also had opinions of Dumas and other French chemists which were not much more positive than Liebig's. But Dumas had retreated about 1840 from a leading theoretical role, replaced by such chemists as Laurent and Gerhardt and in the 1850s by Wurtz as well. Kolbe's relationships with Gerhardt and Wurtz paralleled Liebig's relationship with Dumas, except for the lack of a final reconciliation. It was with Gerhardt and Wurtz that Kolbe felt the strongest sense of rivalry, enmity, hatred—and occasionally, even affinity, if not regard.

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