The Liebig’s Institute of Chemistry in Giessen
After a visit to the Liebig Museum of Giessen in Germany, I decided to put the images and videos I made on my site, together with the information I found in the Museum’s publications, but above all that I gathered from my expert guide, such as Prof Manfred Kroeger who accompanied us during our long visit. The museum preserves the Institute of Chemistry almost intact, where Liebig carried out his activity as a teacher and scientist from 1825 to 1852. It is a unique structure, which has survived to this day. Passing through the rooms and laboratories where generations of chemists have trained under the guidance of a great teacher, such as Liebig, one feels great emotion. It is a mandatory stop for chemists, especially if they are teachers, and a destination for students to include in their school trips.
A laboratory built with new criteria
The construction of the Analysis Laboratory was done with innovative criteria, both for the working conditions, almost two of the four walls were made up of coal-fired stoves. They were equipped with smoke exhaust hoods and laboratory benches of modern conception ( a design that is still current ) . The heart was represented by various apparatuses for the elemental analysis of organic substances. It took Liebig six years to perfect this method of analysis. Berzelius in eighteen months had succeeded in analyzing, with his method, seven organic substances, Liebig in four months analyzed seventy. And his method turned out to be more sensitive. With the introduction of his analytical apparatus into the laboratory procedure, Liebig can be considered the founder of organic chemistry.
The film shot in Liebig’s laboratory and auditorium
The Liebig’s Institute of Chemistry became a point of reference
A lively impression of the intense activity that permeated the small institute (Liebig will eventually have fifty-nine students working there) is offered by the painting by Rigten on the wall near the laboratory door. Some students stand out who will later become famous chemists. Many European chemists passed through his Analysis Laboratory where they learned the best analytical techniques of that period. From them they were in turn passed on to their pupils. Liebig founded an international school of chemistry. His institute was defined by Jakop Volhard as “the mother of all chemical institutes in the world”. Justus Liebig’s chemical laboratory at the German University of Giessen was one of the most important and famous in the entire 19th century, his laboratory became so famous that not only did chemists from all over Europe train there, but it also welcomed chemists from America.
Justus von Liebig, Chimico, 1803-1873
The 1840 painting (by Rigten), which belongs to the museum’s picture gallery,is one of the most famous illustrations of classical chemistry it effectively shows the activity that took place; it was an immersion in an international environment, oriented towards pure research, but not alien from practical applications. Different chemists are represented in a realistic way: posing on the far left is the Mexican Ortigosa, whose analyzes had corrected certain researches by Liebig himself, in his hand he holds the “Kaliapparat”; standing around the table on the left are discussing W. Keller, then pharmacist in Philadelphia, and Heinrich Will, who will be Liebig’s successor in Giessen; on the far right E. Boeckmann is heating the bottom of a test tube under the eyes of August Hofmann: the first will become director of an inorganic dye factory, the second will found two important chemistry schools, first in London and then in Berlin.
Hermann von Helmholtz’s opinion on Liebig’s Institute of Chemistry
The comment of Hermann von Helmholtz (1821 – 1894) who visited a number of scientific institutes of German universities in 1851 is revealing. He found many well-kept, well-stocked and organized laboratories, but of the Liebig’s laboratory of Giessen he wrote “I was amazed to find a completely unexceptional equipment, finding on the contrary everything stiff with dirt ….” Afterwards he adds conciliatory “But one sees that superficial things are not all of reality. For all his vanity, Liebig is truly the foremost of all living chemists and is a teacher of enormous and widespread influence.”
In the Auditorium, next to the laboratory, he held his famous experimental lessons, which he used to prepare with great care. He was simple in style, careful to make what he said understandable. He was hesitant, as if he were experiencing for the first time what he presented.