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9— The Great Break
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Characterization and Causes

The chapter title refers to a sharp change in the fortunes of Kolbe's personal research and that of his school, as well as to a parallel change in the chemical community as a whole. Economists refer to an inflection point in a country's per capita economic output as the "take-off" that marks the beginning of an industrial revolution. Following this model, academic chemistry, led especially by the German organikers , achieved a kind of take-off during the 1850s and 1860s. Thereafter, the study of chemistry was transformed from a small affair conducted by elite scholars with an equally elite student clientele to the kind of routine mass education that is familiar in the modern world. A concomitant of this transformation was the relatively sudden recognition by political leaders of the potential applicability of chemical knowledge.

Kolbe's career followed this pattern, but with an uncharacteristically sharp inflection at the year 1858. First, let us look in table 2 at some rough-and-ready numerical measures of the size and research productivity of the Marburg research group, comparing Kolbe's first seven and a half years (from his arrival in May 1851 until late 1858) with the following year and a half (from the beginning of 1859 until mid-1860). To provide further reference points for comparison, data are also drawn from Bunsen's lab at Marburg during the five years before Kolbe's arrival (1846-1851) and average enrollment figures for the university as a whole.[1]


Table 2.
Research Productivity in Marburg





Student numbers


Ave. Praktikanten in lab





Ave. attendance in chem. lecture





Ave. enrolled as chemists





Ave. total at University




Papers published


By lab director










By students alone









Aggregate intensive measures


Papers per year by lab director





Total papers per year





Papers per Praktikant per year[2]




During the fourteen years examined here, there was a gradual decline both in the prestige of the university and in its overall enrollment. Nonetheless, compared to the other changes being measured, the decline is small enough—about ten percent—that this factor can be neglected. Obviously, throughout the entire period, chemistry at Marburg became less popular, at least as indicated by the sizes of classes and numbers of majors. A factor independent of intrinsic merit operating at least in the 1850s must have been the circumstance that Kolbe was relatively young and still little known in comparison to his predecessor.

As far as research productivity is concerned, Bunsen's later years in Marburg must be regarded as quite successful, considering the time and place. Such was not the case with Kolbe's early Marburg period. In rough terms, he published personally a fourth as often as Bunsen had; his lab as a whole produced a third the annual number of papers; and even after taking into account his smaller number of Praktikanten, per capita productivity was half that of Bunsen's. His own research and that of his school was, to put it bluntly, moribund.

This situation was transformed starting at the end of 1858. In the ensuing eighteen months, his personal productivity was eight times what it had been, and that of his research group increased by a factor of seven. The transition between these periods was razor sharp. Kolbe's last paper before the transition point was his theoretical pro-


spectus, joint with Frankland, dated December 1856. In the fall of 1858 his lab was suddenly bursting with activity (if not with students), and in the last week of that year and the first week of 1859 he wrote or edited seven contributions by him and/or his students; they were published as a group in the March 1859 issue of the Annalen .[3] In the course of 1859 he wrote five new solo papers and another one with a student, and he edited three more by students. Three additional papers came out of his lab by mid-1860. Although I have not tabulated it, in the next five years—his last in Marburg—he managed to maintain close to the same impressive level of productivity of this remarkable eighteen-month period. This activity made him internationally famous; by the mid-1860s he was generally regarded as (perhaps after Hofmann) the most eminent German chemist of his generation. It led to his call to Leipzig in 1865 and to Bonn in 1866 (the latter of which was refused).

Even superficial examination of the numbers in table 2 suffices to show that the explosion was not facilitated by any increase in numbers of students at his disposal; in fact, the numbers continued to decline. He reached simultaneously a low point in numbers and a high point in excitement in March 1860, when he wrote to Vieweg about how his theory had opened inviting prospects of discovery. "If only I had more hands," he cried, "that is, more capable students, who could help me to exploit this treasure trove before others use it." That semester he had but six auditors in his lecture, thirteen at various levels of competence in his practicum, and no chemistry majors at all. The university enrollment had fallen to a low of 216. Seven months later, he wrote Vieweg again, using identical phrases. He said he had been trying to exploit this theory for almost two years, with the help of some very good students, but distressingly small numbers of them.[4]

Were these students, admittedly smaller in number, nonetheless of higher caliber than those he had in his early years in Marburg? That might go far in explaining the great break. Let us attempt at least an impressionistic qualitative comparison of the two periods.[5] During the early Marburg period (1851-1858), he taught one man who would later be regarded as a master chemist, Peter Griess (1829-1888), and three others who could be fairly described as very good journeyman chemists, B. Wilhelm Gerland (ca. 1829-ca. 1905), the Englishman Frederick Guthrie (1833-1886), and the Irishman Maxwell Simpson (1815-1902). For two semesters in 1855-1856, the future industrialist Ludwig Mond (1839-1909) studied in Kolbe's classroom and laboratory, but he was only sixteen at the time and left no traces in publications or in Kolbe's correspondence. It is probable that his subsequent study with Bunsen at Heidelberg was of greater influence on him. Oddly, all three of these early German students of Kolbe would soon emigrate to England—Gerland probably in 1854, Griess in 1858, and


Mond in 1862—spending the rest of their lives working for various English chemical companies. After Marburg, Gerland and Guthrie studied with Frankland in Manchester, and Griess with Hofmann in London. Kolbe had inherited Gerland and Francis Wrightson (whom we met in chap. 6) from Bunsen's research group in 1851. Only a few of Kolbe's early Marburg students can be traced later than about 1858.

The foregoing applies to the period before 1858. During the period of his sudden efflorescence of activity, he had a very capable young man in his lab who later made a successful academic career at the Dresden Technische Hochschule, Rudolf Schmitt (1830-1898). Another worker, quite productive but probably in the "journeyman" category, was Eduard Lautemann, about whom little is known. He studied with Kolbe from 1857 to 1861, thereafter serving as assistant. He published his entire oeuvre of seventeen papers, some solo and many co-authored, during the period from 1859 to 1865, then traveled to India, began to study medicine, and vanished from sight. Adolf Claus (1840-1900), later a prominent structuralist, studied with Kolbe from 1858 and worked in the lab in 1859-1860 before transferring to Göttingen. He was a novice at the time, and there is no evidence that he did any significant research at Marburg.[6]

Bearing in mind that the second period is much shorter than the first, an unequivocal choice between the cast of characters before and after 1858 on the basis of their quality is difficult. However, it is probably fair to suggest that, on the whole, Kolbe had no better student material to work with in 1859-1860 than he did before this time, and as we have seen, he had fewer of them. Thus, we cannot explain the change by looking at the students.

Another possible explanation for the transformation is the influence of external events. I have already related the debilitating fevers and acute rheumatic attacks that plagued Kolbe during virtually all of 1857 and the first half of 1858. During this period as an invalid, Kolbe's frustration was intensified by the fact that it was in December 1856 that he had written a short prospectus of his carbonic acid theory and was then physically unable to substantiate it by experimental efforts. A mineral water "cure" at Wiesbaden in late spring 1858 made him vigorous and healthy again. His arrival back in Marburg on 16 June marks the precise point when he began to generate a prolific research program. On his return he wrote

I have been back in Marburg for a week, and am fortunate to be able to tell you . . . that I am completely recovered, and feel healthier than I have in years. The Wiesbaden water really did me wonders, which I must all the more readily admit, since, to be honest, when I went to Wiesbaden I did not initially have much faith or belief in the therapeutic


power of such an innocent appearing rivulet. . . . Giving lectures is [now] easy for me, and it seems to me that I have never lectured better than I do now. In short, I feel newly reborn, and for this I cannot be sufficiently grateful to Providence.[7]

Before 1857 he had been reasonably healthy, but he had had a number of other problems that tended to interfere with his scientific productivity: courtship, marriage, and founding a family; money troubles; rancorous collegial disputes; and efforts to make as rapid progress as possible on his voluminous textbook and on the Handwörterbuch for Vieweg.

But external events cannot provide anything approaching a full explanation. After 1858, as before, he was much occupied with his textbook, which still was far from complete, and with disputes with colleagues and acquaintances. He continued to be seriously underpaid, and ministerial support for his laboratory was so miserly that in the fall of 1860 he had to spend his own money to support it. His health, although improved, was still not good, and he continued to be afflicted by at least annual attacks of severe rheumatism, as well as regular influenzas and grippes. His mental health was also not good after 1858, and his wife suffered through two long and nearly fatal illnesses.[8]

Finally, there is strong presumptive evidence (detailed in the previous chapter) that publications as late as the middle of 1858 by Ke-kulé, Wurtz, and others influenced the formulation of the definitive version of his theory in that year. It is not unreasonable to conjecture that the medically enforced idleness in Wiesbaden of May and June 1858, complained of bitterly in a letter to Vieweg,[9] gave Kolbe the time to read and ponder the recent literature in a more relaxed fashion than would otherwise have been possible.

I have gone through this examination of candidate causes for the great break in order to support the thesis that the most obvious explanation for the change—the acquisition by 1858 of an extremely powerful theory that was absent before this time—stands virtually alone in importance. The difficulties with which Kolbe had to contend were as great during the years soon after 1858 as compared to before this time. But he had the principal prerequisite for productive research, a good new theory, and that made all the difference.

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9— The Great Break
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