Stammhaus Gmelin. Pharmacy on the market square in Tübingen.

May 12, 2023, by Brigitte Nerlich

The Gmelin family: From chemistry to phlogiston and permafrost

I had Covid. I was lying in bed. I saw a tweet by Mark Carnal saying: “Historians of Biology. How on earth is Gmelin pronounced? I’ve not had to say it out loud before.” I am not a historian of biology but, as a German speaker, I was intrigued. So, I looked up the name and opened a whole Pandora’s box of history of science. As for the pronunciation, the best I could come up with was: (G)MEE-lihn.

To be sure, I rang my 95-year old father in Germany and spelled the name for him and asked how he would pronounce it and he said something rather unexpected. Namely, that, as a young apprentice in Tübingen, he knew a pharmacy on the marketplace which was famous for having once been owned by the Gmelin family (see picture – now called Mayer’sche Apotheke). Wow, that was interesting. A family connection so to speak!

I became even more intrigued when Matthew Cobb tweeted that “The whole family made quite the contributions to various sciences!” When I began to dig, I found that it all began in a that pharmacy in Tübingen. In fact, the family history and the history of all its professors of every discipline under the sun from theology to malacology played out in the three most famous university towns in Germany: Tübingen, Göttingen and Heidelberg and also much further afield, for example in St Petersburg.

A discovery

When I first searched for Gmelin after reading the pronunciation question, I hit upon one Gmelin, namely Johann Friedrich, who was, according to Wikipedia “a German naturalist, chemist, botanist, entomologist, herpetologist, and malacologist” (I had to look that up) and lived from 1748 to 1804. I read about his life and thought, man, how come I never heard of him?

But that was before I realised that he was only one of many many Gmelins. They were proliferating in front of my eyes, a bit like when you fall into the family tree of the Darwin Wedgewood family. Anyway, I got pretty lost and tried to orient myself. To help me, I found two things: a 1911 entry in the Encyclopædia Britannica and an article entitled “The Gmelin dynasty” from 1954 by Paul Walden. There are also lots of entries in the Deutsche Biographie.

A proliferation

The story of my line of Gmelins started with Johann Georg Gmelin (1674–1728) (there are more). As a young wandering apprentice, Johann Georg visited Ulm, Dresden, Leipzig, Delft (1697) and finally ended up in the Royal “Laboratori chymici” in Stockholm (1699). After seven years there, he returned home (1706) and through marriage became the proprietor of an apothecary’s shop in Tübingen (see Walden, 1954).

He had three sons. In the following I shall glean my summary information mainly from Walden, the Encyclopædia Britannica entry and some wiki sources and weave them together in some fashion.

Johann Georg Gmelin’s first son was Johann Conrad (1702–1759). He was an apothecary and surgeon in Tübingen. One of his sons was Samuel Gottlieb (1743–1774) who was appointed professor of natural history at St Petersburg in 1766. He died tragically but he was survived by a nephew Ferdinand Gottlieb von Gmelin (1782–1848) who became professor of medicine and natural history at Tübingen in 1805. Another nephew, Christian Gottlob (1792–1860), became professor of chemistry and pharmacy at the same university, and we’ll get back to him.

Johann Georg Gmelin’s second son was also called Johann Georg (1709–1755). He was appointed professor of chemistry and natural history in St Petersburg in 1731, and from 1733 to 1743 was engaged in travelling through Siberia and much more. We’ll also get back to him.

Johann Georg Gmelin’s third son was Philipp Friedrich (1721–1768) who actually didn’t accomplish an awful lot compared to the rest of his family. Nevertheless, he was appointed extraordinary professor of medicine at Tübingen in 1750, and in 1755 became ordinary professor of botany and chemistry. His son, in turn was the Johann Friedrich (1748–1804), already mentioned above, who seems to have been a real polymath. Johann Friedrich was appointed professor of medicine in Tübingen in 1772, and in 1775 accepted the chair of medicine and chemistry at Göttingen. In 1788 he published the 13th edition of Carolus Linnaeus’ Systema Naturae with many additions and alterations (he was also into ants, good man). His son Leopold (1788–1853), became the best-known member of the family. He studied medicine and chemistry at Göttingen, Tübingen and Vienna, and in 1813 began to lecture on chemistry at Heidelberg.  He discovered potassium ferricyanide (1822) and wrote the famous Handbuch der Chemie (1st ed. 1817–1819, 4th ed. 1843–1855).

I am not totally and utterly sure I got this all right, but I hope so. I now just want to pick out a few juicy bits that got swamped in this overview. These little titbits show how deeply embedded the Gmelin family was in the history of science and especially the history of chemistry.

Johann Georg Gmelin and permafrost

Johann Georg, the apothecary’s second son, was not only a famous botanist, but also an explorer. “During the period from 1733 to 1743 [he] explored a wide area of Siberia. These expeditions yielded numerous plant specimens, which he later described in his writings. Also significant was his identification, in 1735, of permafrost, a permanent frozen layer of earth that exists in northerly regions.” So here we have the discoverer of permafrost, a frost that might now be vanishing under the pressures of climate change!

According to Wikipedia, Johann Georg’s Flora Sibirica (1747–1769) was based on his observations and collections. It contains descriptions of 1178 species, 294 of which he illustrated. His nephew Samuel Gottlieb Gmelin assisted him in editing the final two volumes.

Samuel Gottlieb Gmelin and marine biology

Samuel Gottlieb Gmelin in turn was, according to Wikipedia, the author of “Historia Fucorum (1768), the first work dedicated to marine biology dealing exclusively with algae and the first using the binomial system of nomenclature.”

Johann Friedrich Gmelin, Lavoisier and phlogiston

Johann Friedrich Gmelin, whom we have encountered before, was, according to a rather obscure account, not only “apothecary, chemist, botanist, and physician [and…] explored synthesis of metallic alloys, especially of transition metals; wrote many textbooks, esp. on pharmacy, mineralogy, poisons, technical chemistry, botany, and the history of chemistry”, but he was also an “advocate of the phlogiston theory and opponent of Lavoisier” (with Antoine Lavoisier being one of the most famous early French chemists).

Christian Gottlob Gmelin, Berzelius, Davy and ultramarine

And finally, we come to Christian Gottlob Gmelin. According to Walden (1954), he went to Paris and then, in 1815, Stockholm where he met up with the Jöns Jacob Berzelius, one of the founders of modern chemistry. Gmelin worked in Stockholm for seven months, learned to analyse minerals and did excursions with Berzelius to gather rocks. He spent the winter of 1816-17 in England and here he met another famous chemist, namely Humphrey Davy, who was, at the time, busy inventing the miners’ safety lamp.

But that was not all; in 1828 Christian Gottlob became one of the first to devise a process for the artificial manufacture of ultramarine (which in the past had to be made from precious lapis lazuli) – although a Frenchman pipped him to the post in declaring his own invention (see this article by Philip Ball). Nevertheless, as Walden reports, this invention “gained the praise of Liebig, who in his ‘Chemische Briefe’ (1844) stated: “The crown of all discoveries of mineral chemistry with respect to the production of minerals was indubitably the artificial manufacture of lapis lazuli.” (And Justus von Liebig was, of course, one of the most famous German chemists)

And with this I’ll end my description of the ‘encounters’ between members of the Gmelin family and some of the most famous early chemists, including Lavoisier, Berzelius, Davy and Liebig.

Scientific families

When digging around in the scientific achievements of the Gmelin family, a family I had never heard of until last week, I began to wonder about the contributions that some families, rather than individuals, make to science. We have heard endlessly that science is rarely done by lone heroes but emerges from teamwork, but I haven’t heard an awful lot about whole scientific families.

I was aware of the Herschel family (astronomy, but also fingerprinting) and the Darwin/Wedgewood family (zoology, biology, philology, and more) and the Huxley family (biology, genetics, literature and more) and also the Curie family (physics and more) but only sort of at the back of my mind (and there are more, see here). Anyway, I wonder whether any historians of science have written about scientific families.

From what I can see, there are not a lot family-graphies or familographies, so to speak. I found one book about the Huxleys and another book about the Herschels. The first was written by a journalist, the second by ‘anonymous’ (I wish I knew who it was, as it’s a quite fascinating, almost first-hand, account of the life and work of the Herschels). I’d love to know whether there are more books like this and perhaps more recent ones written by historians of science.

Image: Pharmacy on the market square in Tübingen where the life of the Gmelin family began in the 18th century. Wikimedia commons.





Posted in history of science