Carl Scheele : the discoverer of oxygen

by Roberto Poeti

This post is also available in: Italiano (Italian)

Carl Wilhelm Scheele

I rediscovered the great scientist Carl Scheele, a contemporary of Lavoisier, during a trip that I made in Sweden, and in particular in Stockholm. It is first necessary to say a few words about the village of Skansen. Stockholm is a beautiful city built on many islands, one of which, known as Kungliga Djurgarden (Royal Garden), the early nineteenth there were only hills and plants .

The initiative of Artur Hazelius

During the first decade of the nineteenth century a wealthy merchant John Burgman built to Kungliga Djurgarden a belvedere with a magnificent garden. The properties of this Tycoon was called Skansen, as it was near a small fort (skans = small Fortress). The property included more than four acres of land ; in 1891 they passed into the hands of Artur Hazelius. It is due to  this extraordinary personage the birth in 1891 the first open-air museum in the world. For nearly twenty years had turned the length and breadth of the Swedish countryside collecting folk costumes, furnishings, furniture and equipment of the old peasant culture and the various trades .

The island of Skansen is an open air museum

The Museum in the Hill of Skansen in Stockholm. The arrow shows Scheele’s pharmacy

At Skansen carry out the idea that eventually had matured: make a living museum which had a didactic purpose  of popular education. So from the countryside and from the countries of Sweden moved to Skansen whole houses belonged to workers, peasants and rich bourgeois, farms, laboratories and workshops, even churches and schools, which were faithfully reassembled, keeping preserved interiors and furnishings. The picture is a model of the vast territory of the Skansen in Stockholm where are distributed dozens of historic buildings built between 1600 and 1800.   Today, Skansen is an open air museum where people prepared, in period costume, tell the story of those buildings, the people who lived there, the trades that took place there. It is worth the effort to visit the Museum of Skansen. It’s an exciting plunge into the distant past.

Who was the chemist Scheele

Scheele’s Pharmacy and home to Köpling

In one of these structures is preserved the old pharmacy of chemist Scheele in Köping with its original furnishings  (the next image depicts the House and the pharmacy of Scheele to Köpling) . Next is preserved even the pharmacy of the Royal Palace of Drottningholm, near Stockholm. Are environments that date back to 700. This great Swedish chemist belongs to that category of scientists not frequent who learned his trade at the workshop. We could compare this to the brilliant chemist and physicist Faraday.  Scheele was born in 1742 and died in 1786, then is a contemporary of Lavoisier.


Lavoisier and Scheele two different characters

Compared to Lavoisier, a public figure, academician, rich and successful man opposes Carl Scheele who was never comfortable in the Academy, from which he was not accepted for his lack of academic qualifications, who never had the laboratory that instead had Lavoisier or the Swedish Academy. He worked from the age of fourteen years, starting as an apprentice in a pharmacy by a family friend to Guthenburg, replacing the older brother died of typhoid.

His passion: the laboratory

Showed a great passion for laboratory work, spending all his free time to study and experience so that the pharmacist wrote to his family concerned:

“with his dogged diligence, harms himself, because he spends half the night studying books that are too complex for him.”

Critically repeated those experiences that was described in the literature, often questioning the conclusions .

A valuable knowledge

Where is this modern pharmacy in Uppsala stood in 1770 the Lion Apotherary where Scheele served as an apprentice for five years

In the pharmacy, hidden behind a shelf of drugs, remains this oil painting representing the Pharmacy at the time of Scheele

In the meantime had come into contact with the world of the Academy of Sciences and  in Uppsala he met the academic Torbern Bergman which began a collaboration among the most profitable in the history of science. It was through Bergman that Carl Scheele, despite being only an occasional pharmacist, entered in contact with the scientific community. The collaboration with Bergman broadened the scope of his knowledge include chemical analysis of minerals.

A pilgrimage between pharmacies

He spent eight years in the pharmacy of Guthenburg and then move on to Malmo. In both cases he had the good fortune to work with pharmacists who shared with him the passion for Chemistry and encouraged him to use their pharmacy laboratory to conduct experiments. He used his salary to buy in nearby Copenhagen, culturally and commercially live, most current literature in chemistry and pharmacy. In Malmo where he wrote his first scientific paper describing the isolation and characterization of oxalic acid and tartaric acid afterwards. Always as an apprentice found a placement in a pharmacy in Stockholm and then come to Uppsala.

Finally a pharmacist!

In 1775 he finally was able to get hold of a pharmacy in Köpling.  In this little town will remain until his death prematurely. Writing to a friend he was addressing with these words:

“You can think of, maybe, that I will be absorbed by material concerns and take me away from chemical experiments. Not at all!! . This noble science is my ideal. Be patient and you will soon see something new to learn. ”

His reputation as a skilled and qualified chemist had spread abroad. He declined several offers very tempting coming from Stockholm, Berlin and London. One of the comments by Carl Scheele was the following: “I can’t do more than eat my food; I can do that even in Köping. It is not necessary that I try elsewhere. ”

He replied to the offer having conceived by Berlin in this way:

“after careful consideration, decline the offer. I’m far from being updated on the progress of chemistry, as such a position would require, and I am convinced that I will find my daily bread also in Köping ”

His discoveries

In early 1775 Carl Scheele was elected a member of the Royal Swedish Academy. After the trip to Stockholm to receive the award did not leave more Köping. Incidentally, according to an order of 1698, which remained in force in late 1900 , a pharmacist was supposed to be available day and night, on weekdays and Sundays, always the same. ” In addition to oxalic acid and tartaric acid has been mentioned before, he isolated the lactic acid and Glycerin. He produced when he was at Malmo nitrous acid, hydrofluoric acid and chlorine, isolated the manganese. He contributed decisively to the discovery of molybdenum and tungsten. In Uppsala he decomposed the pigment Prussian blue getting hydrogen cyanide. Considering the toxicity of the substance it’s a wonder  He  didn’t die during his experiences.

The primacy of the discovery of oxygen

The image is taken from the book by Carl Scheele “Chemical observations and experiments on air and fire” of 1780


The discovery that made him popular was the isolation of oxygen who first accomplished although followed shortly thereafter by Lavoisier ePriestley.  I imagine Carl Scheele a person of few words, almost always absorbed in his work, with few material needs and with a private life completely dedicated to research . Becomes companion of his life the young widow from which will get Köpling’s Pharmacy and he married shortly before his death .

A great thrill

It’s a miracle that we have preserved over time some parts of Pharmacy by Carl Scheele. I was thrilled with the idea that those objects have been used by this remarkable chemist.  A man who considered the study of chemistry his ideal of life. Modest and self-effacing came to fame only to the important results of his work without being able to rely on the support of the scientific academies. It is with great emotion that I walked into his pharmacy and I wandered among the things he belonged.




This post is also available in: Italiano (Italian)

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