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Jean Baptiste Andre Dumas: a dominating influence in nineteenth century French chemistry.

This article summarizes the extraordinary contributions of an outstanding chemist and public servant.

Jean Baptiste Andre Dumas was born in Ales, France, on July 14 (Bastille Day), 1800 and died in Cannes on April 11, 1884 [1]. His long life was to be remarkably productive in several spheres of endeavour. He became the most celebrated French chemist of his era, mainly due to his research, teaching, personality, and thinking [2]. Dumas was apprenticed to an apothecary, in Ales, and then at age 16, he journeyed to Geneva, Switzerland, to enter the pharmaceutical laboratory of Le Royer [3]. Several other chemists, destined to become famous, also began their careers by working for an apothecary, examples are: Carl Scheele (1747-1786), Humphry Davy (1778-1829), Justus von Liebig (1803-1873), Edward Frankland (1825-1899), and Henri Moissan (1852-1907).

Dumas followed university chemistry courses in Geneva, and his lively intelligence and work ethic soon attracted the attention of his professors [4]. He was encouraged to complete his studies in Paris and went there to do so in 1821. Two years later, he was appointed lecture assistant to Louis Jacques Thenard (1777-1857), Professor at Ecole Polytechnique, and succeeded him in that capacity in 1835. Dumas was one of the first organic chemists and distinguished himself repeatedly with brilliant research. Some of his early scientific achievements are listed in Table 1.

Molecular and Atomic Weights

One of the most well known contributions of Dumas to chemistry is the method that he devised in the 1820s for the measurement of the vapour densities of volatile liquids, which provided a way to calculate molecular weights. Dumas also determined the atomic weights of about 30 of the 59 chemical elements known [2]. For instance, he adopted H = 1, 0 = 16, and C = 6. He was inspired by the hypothesis of William Prout (1785-1850) who, in 1815, suggested that atomic weights were whole multiples of that of hydrogen [5]. Dumas, as well as others, tried to classify the elements and came up with some interesting relationships between atomic weights and elemental properties [6]. Indeed, he noticed series of similar elements having 'orderly increments in atomic weight' [7], and this idea of order would be developed more fully by others.

In 1837, Dumas, who was never a supporter of atomism, said that he would like to ban the word 'atom' from chemistry since it was "beyond the reach of chemical experience!" [8]. He played an important role as chairman of the first International Chemical Congress that took place in Karlsruhe, Germany, in 1860 and was attended by 140 leading chemists [9]. This gathering, called to discuss atoms and molecules and other confusing aspects, led directly to the Periodic Law of the elements, and to general acceptance of the long neglected hypothesis of Avogadro.

Pioneering in Organic Chemistry

From the mid 1820s to the late 1830s Dumas carried out some outstanding research work in the new field of organic chemistry. With Pierre Boullay, he studied sweet-smelling derivatives of organic vegetable acids called "esters" and came across an interesting analogy with ammonium salts [5]. More than thirty years earlier Lavoisier had proposed that organic acids were made up of oxygen combined with a "compound radical" (organic residue) [10]. This idea became the basis of the radical theory that was applied to organic compounds. In 1828, Dumas and Boullay stated that "ethylene" was a radical and called it Etherin. They also identified some of its addition products. The Etherin theory was the first to show structural relationships between different compounds [7].

In 1833, Dumas devised a very important modification of the combustion analysis technique (developed earlier by the renowned Swedish chemist Jons Jakob Berzelius (1779-1848) and Liebig) in order to collect nitrogen and thus determine its content in organic compounds [11]. Accurate analyses for carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen led to correct molecular formulas, and rapid advances. In 1834, Dumas and Eugene Peligot found that the chemical formula of wood spirit (methyl alcohol) was C[H.sub.4]O [8], and studied its derivatives [12].
Table 1. Scientific contributions of Jean Baptiste Andre Dumas.

Year Contributions

1818 Tested (with Jean Coindet) iodine compounds as a possible
 cure for goitre.
1821 Studied (with Louis Prevost) electrical phenomena in
1826 Put forth ideas relating to the atomic theory.
1828 Published (with Pierre Boullay) important research on
 esters of ethyl alcohol.
1830 Obtained oxamide by distillation of ammonium oxalate.
1832 Discovered anthracene in coal tar.
1832 Prepared cymene from camphor.
1833 Discovered urethane (ethyl carbamate).
1833 Found that chlorine replaced hydrogen when reacted with oil
 of turpentine.
1834 Showed (with Eugene Peligot) that methyl alcohol could be
 oxidized to formic acid.
1834 Obtained chloral by reacting chlorine with ethyl alcohol.
1837 Produced (with Liebig) an important paper on radicals as
 the elements of organic chemistry.
1838 Discovered trichloroacetic acid.
1839 Isolated (with Peligot) cinnamic aldehyde from oil of
1840 Announced the Theory of Chemical Types.
1841 Carried out (with Jean Boussingault) an accurate
 gravimetric analysis of air.
1842 Detected (with August Cahours) differences in the
 elementary composition of proteins.

The same year, Dumas discovered that chlorine replaced hydrogen during the formation of compounds such as trichloroacetic acid, and with little change in properties. This significant finding was confirmed by the work of Auguste Laurent (1807-1853), a former student of Dumas, on chloronaphthalenes and isomorphism [9]. These results clashed head on with the 'dualistic' theory of Berzelius who believed that it was not possible to replace a positive element (hydrogen) by a negative one like chlorine without greatly changing the properties of the product. However, in 1837, Dumas showed that bromine and iodine (negative elements) could also be substituted for hydrogen in organic compounds with similar results. Dumas and Laurent were severely criticized by Berzelius and Liebig, but triumphed when their findings soon became generally accepted. The replacement reaction, initially called "metalepsie" (exchange), became known as "substitution", as suggested by Laurent and Charles Gerhardt (1816-1856).

In 1840, Dumas put forward the Theory of Types in which chemical types were said to give rise to the same fundamental reactions [4]. He also did notable research on indigo, amides, fertilizers, and amyl alcohol, and realized that the latter compound belonged to the same chemical family as methyl and ethyl alcohol, thus introducing the notion of functional group. In addition, Dumas analyzed essential oils and obtained formulae for substances such as borneol, menthol, and camphor [3]. In 1838, he coined the name Glucose for the sweet substance found in grapes and honey, and later applied the idea of homologous series to fatty acids [10].

By 1835, Dumas had become convinced that the laws discovered in organic chemistry would also ensure the future progress of chemistry in general, a striking prediction for the times.

Writing and Publications

Dumas had considerable talent as a writer and has been rated as an "ecrivain hors ligne" [13]. His production of research papers, mainly appearing in Annales de Chimie, and Comptes Rendus and Memoires de l'Academie des Sciences, over many years, was truly prolific. Friedrich Wohler (1800-1882), who met Dumas in Paris in 1833, referred to him as a "very industrious fellow" [3]. Dumas was a great admirer of Antoine Lavoisier and wrote the first four volumes of "Oeuvres de Lavoisier" which appeared between 1862 and 1868 [14]. One of his greatest literary contributions was his "Traite de chimie appliquee aux Arts", which was compiled and published in Paris in the form of eight volumes between 1828 and 1846. This substantial work has been described as "un des plus beaux monuments de la science chimique" [1].

Teaching and Students

Dumas quickly became known as a first-class teacher. In the 1820s, he gave lectures in the evenings at the Athenaeum and taught chemistry at Ecole Polytechnique. He was named professor of organic chemistry at Ecole de Medecine in 1829, and three years later was appointed Assistant Professor at the Sorbonne, where he was to succeed the famous Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac in 1841 [3]. Dumas, who also lectured at College de France, shared with Gay-Lussac, the distinction of holding several professorships simultaneously in different institutions [15]. His successor in some of his professorships from around 1848 was Charles Adolphe Wurtz (1817-1884), who had been one of his students [2].

Dumas prepared his experimental lectures with a great deal of care and "achieved a great distinction in style" [3]. This was probably one of the reasons why he was able to attract so many good students, some of whom were to become famous in their own right. For example, Louis Pasteur (1822-1895), who initially wanted to be a professor of fine arts, attended lectures by Dumas, who encouraged him to do research in chemistry [16]; and Friedrich August Kekule (1829-1896), a pupil of Liebig, in Giessen, went to Paris to follow courses given by Dumas [4].

In 1832, Dumas provided practical laboratory training for students at Ecole Polytechnique, being the first French chemist to do so [3]. At about the same time, Liebig was introducing a similar initiative in Germany. In 1843, Dumas lectured on the chemistry of organisms [8], and shared with Liebig a lively interest in the application of chemistry to both animals and plants.

Scientific Work in Other Areas

Dumas also made significant contributions to other scientific fields. At the early age of 18 he was already a competent physiologist [3] and his interest returned to that area many years later. Thus, in 1841, he published (with Boussingault) an essay entitled Essai de Statistique Chimique des Etres Organises that dealt with the physiology of vegetables and animals. This major work presented correlations between plant and animal metabolism [17]. Two years later, Dumas, (in collaboration with Boussingault and Anselme Payen) announced the results of researches on the fattening of cattle and the formation of milk [3]. In 1844, Dumas and Boussingault began research on the chemistry of agriculture. As late as 1871, Dumas was publishing researches on the constitution of blood and milk [18], and on alcoholic fermentation a year after that.

The Second Career

In middle age, Dumas started a second career, this time in public service and consequently spent less time on scientific matters. He served as Minister of Agriculture and Commerce from 1849 to 1851. He was appointed Master of the French Mint and elected a Senator. Dumas became President of the Council of the City of Paris, in effect the Mayor. In 1868, he was named Minister of Education. Herein lies an interesting parallel between Dumas and his younger compatriot Marcellin Berthelot (1827-1907), professor at College de France, who was also to make his mark in organic chemistry and politics. Berthelot became Inspector of Higher Education and was elected a Senator in 1881. Then he served as Minister of Public Instruction (18861887), and finally Foreign Minister (1895-1896). In 1868, Dumas was appointed Secretaire perpetuel (Permanent Secretary) of the prestigious Academie des Sciences, an influential position that Bertholet was also called upon to occupy later on.


Jean Baptiste Dumas deserves "the most powerful man in the world of French chemistry" designation [7]. Along with Liebig, he was described as a "grand chimiste romantique" [4]. He was even called the "fondateur de la chimie organique" [19], although the latter title certainly flatters him since a number of chemists pioneered that field. Berthelot wrote that Dumas "a preside pendant rant d'annees la chimie francaise" [14], a fitting tribute from an illustrious colleague.

Liebig dedicated the French version of his Chemische Briefe, which appeared in 1851, in honour of Dumas. It is clear that Dumas occupied an enviable position in nineteenth century French chemistry and was a major force in its development. This was due, in large measure, to his compelling zeal, great influence, and superior effort over an incredible six decades.


1. Dictionnaire Petit Larousse, Librairie Larousse, Paris, 1964, p. 1325.

2. Garard, I.D., Invitation to Chemistry, Doubleday & Co., Inc., Garden City, New York, pp. 203-205, 1969.

3. Partington, J.R., A History of Chemistry, Vol. 4, Macmillan & Co. Ltd., New York, pp. 537-541, 1964.

4. Delacare, M, Histoire de la Chimie, Gauthier-Villars et Cie., Paris, p. 341, 421, 518, 1920.

5. Brock, W.H., The Fontana History of Chemistry, Fontana Press, Harper Collins Publishers, New York, p. 212, 316, 1992.

6. Farber, E., Milestones of Modern Chemistry, Basic Books, Inc., New York, p. 38, 1966.

7. Salzberg, H.W., From Caveman to Chemist, American Chemical Society, Washington, DC, pp. 231-236, p. 258, 1991.

8. Farber, E., The Evolution of Chemistry, 2nd ed., The Ronald Press Co., New York, p. 153, 182, 222, 1969.

9. Hartley, H., Studies in the History of Chemistry, Clarendon Press, Oxford, pp. 8184, 1971.

10. Venable, F.P., History of Chemistry, 3rd ed., D.C. Heath & Co., Boston, p. 120, 137, 1900.

11. Asimov, I., A Short History of Chemistry, Anchor Books, Doubleday & Co., Inc., Garden City, New York, p. 102, 1965.

12. Dumas, J.B et Peligot, E., 'Sur l'esprit de bois et sur les divers composes qui en proviennent', Ann. de chimie et de phys., 2e serie t. LVIII, p. 5, 1835.

13. Lockemann, G., Histoire de la Chimie, Dunod, Paris, p. 166, 1962.

14. Bertholet, M., La Revolution Chimique Lavoisier, Librairie scientifique et technique, Albert Blanchard, Paris, p. v, 1964.

15. Newbold, B.T, 'Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac: Polyvalence Personified', Can. Chem. News, 50(1):29, 1998.

16. Asimov, I., Asimov on Chemistry, Doubleday & Co., Inc., Garden City, New York, p. 169, 1974.

17. Florkin, M., A History of Biochemistry, Part II, Comprehensive Biochemistry, Vol. 30, Elsevier Publishing Co., Amsterdam, p. 149, 1972.

18. Dumas, J.B., 'The Constitution of Blood and Milk', Phil. Mag, 42:129, 1871.

19. Reichen, C.-A., La Science Illustree: Histoire de la Chimie, les Editions Rencontre et Erik Nitsche International, Lausanne, p. 65, 1963.

Brian Newbold, FCIC, now retired from the Departement de chimie et biochimie at Universite de Moncton, Moncton, NB, taught a history of chemistry course for many years and has a particular interest in French chemists of the 18th and 19th centuries.
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Author:Newbold, Brian T.
Publication:Canadian Chemical News
Article Type:Biography
Date:Jul 1, 1998
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