Our first four accounts of “crackpots” who were right all had tragic endings, so it is a pleasure to find one that has a happy ending. This is the story of Svante August Arrhenius whose thesis for a doctorate in chemistry was lambasted by his examiners, yet he went on to win the Nobel Prize for it.
Svante Arrhenius, born 1859 in Sweden, was a prodigious child who taught himself to read at just three years old and became an expert at arithmetic by watching his father doing his accounts. He graduated from his school as the youngest and most able student at 17 and went on to study at the University of Uppsala and then Physical Institute of the Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm where he produced his theses.
As a chemist Arrhenius set himself apart from other post-graduate students of the day by doing almost no experimental work. Instead he set about looking for an explanation for how chemical reactions work in solutions based on principles of physics. The leading clue came from the process of electrolysis in which chemicals in solution are separated by passing a current between two electrodes. Faraday had suggested that the current was conducted by charged ions but it was Arrhenius who identified these with charged atoms. He concluded that salts in solution must disassociate into separate ions. At the time it was hard for other chemists to accept the idea that chemicals such as table salt could separate into reactive chemicals such as sodium and chlorine in solution but we now know that this is indeed the case.
Arrhenius submitted his dissertation to Uppsala for examination where it met with a cold welcome. The professors there were so unimpressed that they gave it just a fourth grade pass, the lowest possible. Such a low mark meant that his hopes for a future as a scientist were virtually non-existant. This story might have ended there along with his career except that Arrhenius sent copies of his work to chemists in other European countries in the hope that someone would recognise its worth. Only a few did. The older generation were not ready for the radical ideas, but some younger scientists saw that Arrhenius had indeed made a brilliant discovery.
Today we know Arrhenius as the founder of physical chemistry. Here we have just summarised the work of his theses in a few lines but actually it contained 56 original claims describing the chemistry of solutions and the principles behind acids and bases. A chemist who looked at his dissertation today would find little to dispute.
Despite the rejection from scientists in his own country, Arrhenius was very patriotic. Wilhelm Ostwald tried to persuade him to join his research team in Riga, but Arrhenius wanted to stay in Sweden. A compromise was worked out whereby he took an appointment in Uppsala based on the recommendation of Ostwald along with a travel grant that allowed him to spend time in Riga and other European countries. In this way he led a long and productive career. As well as further work on physical chemistry he also developed the theory of the greenhouse effect and its potential consequences for global climate. That was an idea that would not be accepted in his lifetime and it was just one of several ideas he had that were well ahead of their day.
In 1901 Arrenius was elected to the Swedish Academy of Sciences despite continuing opposition from the older chemists in his homeland. By then a new generation of chemists were in no doubt of how the subject had been revolutionised by the work of Arrenius. In 1903 he has honoured in his own country when he became the first Swede to receive the Nobel Prize for his work. He became happy in his writing books for students and the public before he died at the age of 68.