The Sceptical Chymist | The greatest chemist of all time?

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Disclaimer: this was a bit of Twitter-related fun and while it does throw up some interesting observations, this is in no way a properly executed comprehensive survey of ‘the greatest chemist of all time’…

It’s not an easy question, and probably not a fair one either. What do we mean by ‘greatest’ and, for that matter, what do we mean by ‘chemist’? We’re probably only on safe ground with ‘all time’!

This all started over lunch a couple of days ago when the London-based members of the NChem team (myself, Gav and Neil) were having lunch at NPG towers with, amongst others, the chief editor of Nature Nanotechnology (@drpeterrodgers). After the usual football banter had come to an end, somehow we got on to the topic of iconic figures in physics and chemistry.

If you ask physicists to name the greatest of all time in their field, many will choose Einstein or Newton — see this Physics World story (free registration required) and this BBC piece. Of course there are many other great physicists, but ask for just one name and it usually boils down to one of those two. In chemistry, however, we came to the conclusion that there aren’t just one or two names that stand out from the crowd — there’s just a crowd.

To put this to the test, we decided to conduct a wholly arbitrary and definitely unscientific poll on Twitter, asking the simple question — who is the greatest chemist of all time? No qualifiers and no guidelines, other than you can only pick one name. No ranking of multiple individuals and no shared glory. No debate (at this stage) of whether someone would have been classified more as a physicist than a chemist in their time. And the results don’t include retweets of suggestions, unless they specifically indicated that they were additional votes for, rather than just RTs of stuff people found interesting. Many thanks to everyone who responded.

And so, here are the results:

We had 86 votes in total, with a whopping 36 different suggestions of who is the greatest chemist.

The top four places go to: Linus Pauling (16 votes), Dmitri Mendeleev (11), Antoine Lavoisier (7) and Marie Curie (6 votes).

Then we have Robert Burns Woodward (4), Michael Faraday (4) and Gilbert Lewis (3).

Everyone else just got one or two votes — and they are (in no particular order): Amedeo Avogadro (2), Fritz Haber (2), Friedrich Wöhler (1), Alfred Werner (1), Henry Moseley (1), Paul Walden (1), Robert Robinson (1), Ludwig Boltzmann (1), Jacobus Henricus van ’t Hoff (1), Jabir ibn Hayyan (2), E. J. Corey (2), August Kekulé (2), Robert Boyle (1), Walther Nernst (1), Svante Arrhenius (1), Shigeru Terabe (1), James Joule (1), Victor Grignard (1), William Perkin (1), Stanislao Cannizzaro (1), Wallace Carothers (1), Emil Fischer (1), Wilhelm Ostwald (1), Niels Bohr (2), Ryoji Noyori (1), Paracelsus (1), Mother Nature (1), Louis Pasteur (1), Humphry Davy (1).

There are some notable names not mentioned, including Gibbs, Dalton and Priestley.

What does this mean? We’ll consider this more thoroughly in an upcoming editorial, but for now it is clear that even in this small sample size, there are many different chemistry heroes. Sure, Pauling and Mendeleev got a few more votes than the others, but they’re not streaking ahead — and there is a long tail here.

Is this a problem for chemistry — not having a unifying iconic figurehead that we can point to? Maybe, maybe not. But in a year when our subject is being celebrated on the global stage and we take stock of its wider appeal in the world, it’s something to consider (not that we can really do much about it though!). The International Year of Chemistry is rightly celebrating Marie Curie and her contributions to chemistry, and she does well in our little poll, but is one of many names.

Perhaps we should be proud that there are so many names mentioned in response to the question of who is the greatest, it must reflect — in some measure — the diversity and depth of our subject.

Returning again to the question itself — it is not an easy one, because how do you compare the likes of Woodward and Mendeleev, or Pauling and Wöhler. The answers to the question we pose are wholly subjective, but it’s more the whole exercise and breadth of responses that are more enlightening.

We really hope you join the discussion in the comments to this blog post — and please do add your votes for who you think is the greatest chemist of all time.


Stuart Cantrill (Chief Editor, Nature Chemistry)

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