Justus von Liebig

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Justus von Liebig
Justus von Liebig NIH.jpg
Born (1803-05-12)12 May 1803
Darmstadt, Grand Duchy of Hesse
Died 18 April 1873(1873-04-18) (aged 69)
Munich, German Empire
Residence Grand Duchy of Hesse, then German Empire
Nationality Hessian, then German
Fields Chemistry
Institutions University of Giessen
University of Munich
Alma mater University of Bonn
University of Erlangen
Doctoral advisor Karl Wilhelm Gottlob Kastner
Doctoral students Carl Schmidt
Nikolay Zinin
Victor Regnault
Carl von Voit
Hermann von Fehling
Hermann Franz Moritz Kopp
August Kekulé
August von Hofmann
Lyon Playfair
Emil Erlenmeyer
Heinrich Ritthausen
Moritz Traube
Adolph Strecker
Wilhelm Henneberg
Other notable students Augustus Voelcker[1]
Known for Discovery of Nitrogen
Law of the Minimum
Liebig condenser
Notable awards Albert Medal (1869)

Justus Freiherr von Liebig[2] (12 May 1803 – 18 April 1873) was a German chemist who made major contributions to agricultural and biological chemistry, and worked on the organization of organic chemistry. When he was a professor, he devised the modern laboratory-oriented teaching method, and for such innovations, he is regarded one of the greatest chemistry teachers of all time. He is considered the "father of the fertilizer industry" for his discovery of nitrogen as an essential plant nutrient, and his formulation of the Law of the Minimum which described the effect of individual nutrients on crops. He also developed a manufacturing process for beef extracts, and founded a company, Liebig Extract of Meat Company, that later trademarked the Oxo brand beef bouillon cube.


Liebig was born in Darmstadt into a middle-class family. From childhood he was fascinated with chemistry. At the age of 13, Liebig lived through the year without a summer, when the majority of food-crops in the northern hemisphere were destroyed by a volcanic winter. Germany was among the hardest-hit in the global famine that ensued, and the experience is said to have shaped Liebig's later work. Thanks in part to Liebig's innovations in fertilizers and agriculture, the 1816 famine became known as "the last great subsistence crisis in the Western world".[3]

Liebig was apprenticed to the apothecary Gottfried Pirsch (1792–1870) in Heppenheim and attended the University of Bonn, studying under Karl Wilhelm Gottlob Kastner, a business associate of his father. When Kastner moved to the University of Erlangen, Liebig followed him and later took his doctorate from Erlangen. Liebig did not receive the doctorate until well after he had left Erlangen, and the circumstances are clouded by a possible scandal [see Munday (1990)]. Liebig left Erlangen in March 1822, in part because of his involvement with the radical Korps Rhenania (a nationalist student organization) but also because of his hopes for more advanced chemical studies.

In autumn 1822 Liebig went to study in Paris on a grant obtained for him by Kastner from the Hessian government. He worked in the private laboratory of Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac, and was also befriended by Alexander von Humboldt and Georges Cuvier (1769–1832). After leaving Paris, Liebig returned to Darmstadt and married Henriette Moldenhauer, the daughter of a state official.

In 1824 at the age of 21 and with Humboldt's recommendation, Liebig became a professor at the University of Giessen. He established the world's first major school of chemistry there. He received an appointment from the King of Bavaria to the University of Munich in 1852, where he remained until his death in 1873 in Munich. He became Freiherr (baron) in 1845. He is buried in the Alter Südfriedhof in Munich.

He founded and edited from 1832 the journal Annalen der Chemie, which became the leading German-language journal of Chemistry. The volumes from his lifetime are often referenced just as Liebigs Annalen; and following his death the title was officially changed to Justus Liebigs Annalen der Chemie.

He was elected a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1837.

The young Liebig: 1843 lithograph after an 1821 painting (Liebighaus)
Justus Liebig, former President of the Bavarian Academy of Science

Research and development[edit]

Liebig improved organic analysis with the Kaliapparat – a five-bulb device that used a potassium hydroxide solution to remove the organic combustion product carbon dioxide.[4] He downplayed the role of humus in plant nutrition and discovered that plants feed on nitrogen compounds and carbon dioxide derived from the air, as well as on minerals in the soil. One of his most recognized and far-reaching accomplishments was the invention of nitrogen-based fertilizer. Liebig believed that nitrogen must be supplied to plant roots in the form of ammonia, and recognized the possibility of substituting chemical fertilizers for natural (animal dung, etc.) ones. Nitrogen fertilizers are now widely used throughout the world, and their production is a substantial segment of the chemical industry. He also propagated Carl Sprengel's "Theorem of minimum" (known as Law of the Minimum), stating that a plant's development is limited by the one essential mineral that is in the relatively shortest supply, visualized as "Liebig's barrel". This concept is a qualitative version of the principles used for determining the application of fertilizer in modern agriculture.

He was also one of the first chemists to organize a laboratory in its present form. His novel method of organic analysis enabled him to direct the analytical work of many graduate students. The vapor condensation device he popularized for his research is still named a Liebig condenser, although it was in common use long before Liebig's research began. Liebig's students were from many of the German states as well as Britain and the United States, and they helped create an international reputation for their Doktorvater.

In 1835 he invented a process for silvering that greatly improved the utility of mirrors and in 1850 he investigated spontaneous human combustion, dismissing the simplistic explanations based on ethanol due to alcoholism.[citation needed][5]

Liebig's work on applying chemistry to plant and animal physiology was especially influential. At a time when many chemists such as Jöns Jakob Berzelius insisted on a hard and fast separation between the organic and inorganic, Liebig argued that

...the production of all organic substances no longer belongs just to the organism. It must be viewed as not only probable but as certain that we shall produce them in our laboratories. Sugar, salicin [aspirin], and morphine will be artificially produced."

Liebig's arguments against any chemical distinction between living (physiological) and dead chemical processes proved a great inspiration to several of his students and others who were interested in materialism. Though Liebig distanced himself from the direct political implications of materialism, he tacitly supported the work of Karl Vogt (1817–1895), Jacob Moleschott (1822–1893), and Ludwig Buechner (1824–1899).

German stamp picturing Justus von Liebig, 1953

Liebig played a more direct role in reforming politics in the German states through his promotion of science-based agriculture and the publication of John Stuart Mill's Logic. Through Liebig's close friendship with the Vieweg family publishing house, he arranged for his former student Jacob Schiel (1813–1889) to translate Mill's important work for German publication. Liebig liked Mill's Logic in part because it promoted science as a means to social and political progress, but also because Mill featured several examples of Liebig's research as an ideal for the scientific method. Liebig is also credited with the notion that "searing meat seals in the juices."[6] This idea, still widely believed, is not true.

Working with Belgian engineer George Giebert, Liebig devised an efficient method of producing beef extract from carcasses. In 1865, they founded the Liebig Extract of Meat Company, marketing the extract as a cheap, nutritious alternative to real meat. Some years after Liebig's death, in 1899, the product was trademarked "Oxo".

Liebig is also credited with the invention of Marmite because of his discovery that yeast could be concentrated.[7][8]

After World War II, the University of Giessen was officially renamed after him, "Justus-Liebig-Universität Giessen". In 1953 the West German post office issued a stamp in his honor.[9]

Major works[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Williams, W J. "Scientific Societies and Institutions in Bath". Bath Royal Litarary & Scientific Institution. Retrieved 20 July 2010. 
  2. ^ German pronunciation: [ˈjʊstʊs fɔn liːbɪç]
  3. ^ Evans, Robert Blast from the Past, Smithsonian Magazine. July 2002
  4. ^ Liebig, J. (1831), Ueber einen neuen Apparat zur Analyse organischer Körper, und über die Zusammensetzung einiger organischen Substanzen, Annalen der Physik 21: 1–47, Bibcode:1831AnP....97....1L, doi:10.1002/andp.18310970102 
  5. ^ Ford, Brian J. "Solving the Mystery of Spontaneous Human Combustion". Retrieved 23 August 2012. 
  6. ^ McGee, Harold (2004), On Food and Cooking (Revised Edition), Scribner, ISBN 0-684-80001-2  Page 161, "The Searing Question".
  7. ^ "Marmite: Ten things you'll love/hate to know". BBC News. BBC. 25 May 2011. Retrieved 26 May 2011. 
  8. ^ "A brief history of Marmite". I Love Marmite. Seamus Waldron. 2009. Retrieved 26 May 2011. 
  9. ^ Germany #695, Scott catalogue


  • William H. Brock, Justus von Liebig: The Chemical Gatekeeper (Cambridge University Press, 1997). See also William H. Brock.
  • Rosenfeld, Louis (2003), Justus Liebig and animal chemistry., Clin. Chem. (Oct 2003) 49 (10): 1696–707, doi:10.1373/49.10.1696, PMID 14500604 
  • Kirschke, Martin (2003), Liebig, his university professor Karl Wilhelm Gottlob Kastner (1783–1857) and his problematic relation with romantic natural philosophy., Ambix (Mar 2003) 50 (1): 3–24, PMID 12921103 
  • Buttner, J. (2000), Justus von Liebig and his influence on clinical chemistry., Ambix (Jul 2000) 47 (2): 96–117, PMID 11640225 
  • Thomas, U. (1988), Philipp Lorenz Geiger and Justus Liebig., Ambix 35 (2): 77–90, PMID 11621581 
  • Guggenheim, K. Y. (1985), Johannes Müller and Justus Liebig on nutrition., Korot 8 (11–12): 66–76, PMID 11614053 
  • Sonntag, O. (1977), Religion and science in the thought of Liebig, Ambix (Nov 1977) 24 (3): 159–69, PMID 11610495 
  • Glas, E. (1976), The Liebig-Mulder controversy. On the methodology of physiological chemistry, Janus; revue internationale de l'histoire des sciences, de la médecine, de la pharmacie, et de la technique 63 (1–2–3): 27–46, PMID 11610199 
  • Sonntag, O. (1974), Liebig on Francis Bacon and the utility of science, Annals of science (Sep 1974) 31 (5): 373–86, doi:10.1080/00033797400200331, PMID 11615416 
  • Kempler, K. (1973), [Justus Liebig], Orvosi hetilap (Jun 3, 1973) 114 (22): 1312–7, PMID 4576434 
  • Halmai, J. (1963), Justus Liebig, Orvosi hetilap (Aug 11, 1963) 104: 1523–4, PMID 13952197 
  • Berghoff, E. (1954), Justus von Liebig, founder of physiological chemistry, Wien. Klin. Wochenschr. (Jun 11, 1954) 66 (23): 401–2, PMID 13187963 
  • Schmidt, F. (1953), To Justus von Liebig on his 150th birthday, 12 May 1953, Pharmazie (May 1953) 8 (5): 445–6, PMID 13088290 
  • Schneider, W. (1953), Justus von Liebig and the Archiv der Pharmazie; in memory of Liebig's birthday, 12 May 1803, Archiv der Pharmazie und Berichte der Deutschen Pharmazeutischen Gesellschaft 286 (4): 165–72, PMID 13081110 
  • Knapp, G. F. (1903), Zur Hundertsten Wiederkehr: Justus von Liebig nach dem Leben gezeichnet, Berichte der deutschen chemischen Gesellschaft 36 (2): 1315–1330, doi:10.1002/cber.19030360202. 
  • Georg Freiherr von Liebig (1890), Nekrolog: Justus von Liebig. Eigenhändige biographische Aufzeichnungen, Berichte der deutschen chemischen Gesellschaft 23 (3): 817–828, doi:10.1002/cber.18900230391. 
  • Zur Erinnerung an Justus von Liebig, Journal für Praktische Chemie 8 (1), 1873: 428–458, doi:10.1002/prac.18740080148. 

External links[edit]