When you think of a chemist, who comes to mind besides the drugs seller in your local shop?

The chemists we discuss today are of a far loftier variety. They dedicated their lives to building our knowledge of the microscopic world by helping us understand how organisms function under various influences.

In some cases, the most famous chemists are renowned for their lesser accomplishments and others for their politics, religion or temperament. Marie Curie is better known for her contributions to physics - research into radiation phenomena but she also identified two elements on the periodic table, which earned her the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

To date, she is the only woman to have won two Nobel Prizes. Even more remarkable, she won them in two different disciplines!

Mme Curie is not the only noteworthy chemist on our list; she only headlines it.

Come with Superprof as we reveal the most famous chemists and what they're (sometimes less) known for.

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Marie Curie

The Kingdom of Poland was a part of the Russian empire when Maria entered the world. Her family, initially well-to-do, lost everything fighting for Poland's independence. Her parents were both teachers; her father taught maths and physics at two different schools. Hardly what one would think of as revolutionary types... or were they?

When the Russian government forced the schools to stop doing any laboratory experiments, her father brought home as much lab equipment as he could and proceeded to teach his five children, including his youngest, Maria, how to use it.

It's fair to say that Marie Curie came by her love of science and discovery honestly.

The Curies worked in abysmal conditions
Marie Curie did not have the best chemistry lab but that didn’t stop her from discovering two new elements. Photo credit: dustandsilence.net on Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Equally fair to state: she was no stranger to loss and grief. Besides being stripped of the comfortable life she was born into, her oldest sister died of typhus when she was barely seven years old; her mother died just three years after that. Perhaps these early losses steeled her resolve to focus on physics, the only career she wanted to pursue.

Ironically, her life as a scientist led her to the love of her life.

Together, Pierre and Marie Curie sent shockwaves through the scientific community, both for their unique discovery methods and the findings themselves. They would establish perhaps the world's only science dynasty - their daughter Irene followed in their footsteps into science and married physicist Frederic Joliot-Curie. Their children are also scientists.

As of now, the Curie family has been accorded no fewer than five Nobel Prizes. Marie won the Chemistry prize for her discovery of radium and polonium and jointly won the Physics prize for her work on radiation.

That is a remarkable track record, established in great part by an amazing chemist, but they are not the sum total of Mme Curie's life and work...

Joseph Priestley

If you've never heard of phlogiston theory, it's probably because it's long been debunked - and that's because phlogiston doesn't exist. That didn't stop Joseph Priestley from believing in it, staking his career, reputation and, ultimately, his life on the idea that there must exist a fire-like element within every type of matter.

His tenacious hold on that fallacy is what Mr Priestley is infamous for... well, that and the Priestley Riots. As a chemist, he is credited with isolating and describing several gases, among them oxygen. What could account for those odd beliefs that caused him so much trouble?

Well, belief is at the root of it all, from his dogged insistence that things must be just so to the presumed existence of phlogiston, a hypothesis he defended until the end of his life.

Whereas most scientists make chemistry, physics or biology their life's work because they are passionate about science, Mr Priestley embarked on a life of discovery and experimentation to prove religion. His theological education and fervently devout background led him to conclude that moral and religious facts could not be mere thoughts; they must have a discoverable source and/or origin.

This British chemist used what he discovered in his lab to preach at the pulpit but his congregation were having none of it. Rather than taking the hint and keeping himself to more palatable topics in church, he withdrew into his laboratory, giving himself wholly to education and scientific experimentation.

At Warrington Academy, after a few less-than-successful stints in various churches, he was welcomed with open arms. In fact, thanks to his work in divorcing English Grammar from Latin and having established a successful school on his own, Warrington felt lucky to have retained him.

They gave him all of the latitude he needed to set up a lab, where he identified:

  • dephlogisticated nitrous air (nitric oxide)
  • dephlogisticated air (oxygen)
  • alkaline air (ammonia)
  • nitric air (nitrous oxide)
  • marine acid air (anhydrous hydrochloric acid )

Considering the magnitude of his discoveries, it's odd that he is better known and regarded for his theses on English Grammar than any scientific discoveries.

Furthermore, with such a reputation and a record of discovery, it's hard to see how Joseph Priestley could be the reason for the Birmingham Riots, let alone having to flee for his life.

Exactly how those events unfolded is the subject of a whole other article...

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Louis Pasteur

Young Louis was not a particularly good student; he mostly squeaked by in all of his classes - probably because he would rather have been fishing or sketching.

His father wanted a more lucrative, less toxic and backbreaking profession for his son so he steered him toward teaching. Without the least inclination to revolutionise the world, Louis studied philosophy at college, only belatedly embracing science as his course of study.

Poor marks kept him in school longer than he should have stayed, which put him in the sights of chemist Antoine Balard, one of the scientists who identified the chemical element bromine. Under Balard's tutelage, he researched crystallography, which led to his discovery of molecular asymmetry.

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Pasteur is more renown for milk processing than vaccination
Louis Pasteur wrote the book on making milk safe to drink and discovered ways to inoculate against disease. Photo credit: The Library of Congress on VisualHunt

All of this was because he was studying to become a teacher; he still had no inclination toward becoming a scientist of any stripe even if he did teach physics in two different universities.

In the field of observation, chance favours only the prepared mind. - Louis Pasteur

It appeared that, whether he liked it or not, Mr Pasteur had a keen scientific intellect that chance was intent on favouring... but not immediately. Still in his capacity as a teacher, he was appointed to head the science department at the most prestigious graduate school in Paris.

Under his direction, the standards for research became more regimented, leading to more competition for places and better results on examinations. However, some of his measures were draconian; twice, under his tenure, students united against him.

These early forays into academic authority gave a preview of the discipline that he would exercise throughout his career as a scientist. Even as he cultured bacteria to inoculate chickens, his earliest foray in vaccine development, carefully noting every step of his experiments and results became the standard for scientific documentation today.

Today, Louis Pasteur is mostly known for making milk safe to drink but he did important work in vaccination.

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Alexander Fleming

Like the French chemist in the last segment, Sir Fleming came to science indirectly.

His family was not well-off and, making matters worse, his father died when he was still just a boy. That dealt Sir Fleming's future prospects two severe blows: a lack of guidance to establish his life's path and a lack of money to finance it.

Fortunately for him and us, he found both. He inherited money when his uncle John died and his older brother, a doctor, advised him to study medicine. Now that he had the means to, he did. And then, he got to work... but in the strangest of ways!

His membership in the university rifle club led him to serve in the Royal Army Medical Corps during the First World War. Stationed in the French countryside in a string of battlefield medical units, he noticed that patients were getting worse, not better through the application of antibacterials.

He formulated a brilliant theory about that but nobody believed him. Perhaps that's what set his cap to studying bacteria - how they grow, vary and how to prevent harmful organisms from overwhelming a patient's natural defences.

Indeed, he was the one to discover that the human body produced antibiotics. In an odd experiment that involved smearing his own mucus on culture plates, he discovered lysozyme. That early success brought him a bit of recognition, leading other scientists to consult with him on their research projects.

Thus, when Joseph Warwick Bigger asked for his help in studying Staphylococcus Aurelius just before Sir Fleming when on holiday, he inoculated his culture plates and the rest is medical history!

Alexander Fleming gave the world penicillin for free so he was understandably outraged when American Robert Coghill and his associates profited from his discovery.

Ms Franklin's work was rather highjacked and others took credit
Rosalind Franklin’s famous Photo 51, taken by her assistant, earned her university colleagues the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Photo credit: Allen Gathman on Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Rosalind Franklin

While Polish-French Marie Curie had no trouble gaining respect and recognition for her work, English chemist Rosalind Franklin had to fight for every bit she earned. On the other hand, several books, published by her closest associates detail her combative attitude and hint it might have been unnecessary, at times.

However, the narrative of her work doesn't bear that out.

Although she brought new and important methods to the London university labs she worked in - techniques learned from the French master of X-ray crystallography, Jacques Mering, she encountered friction because the lab director did not properly prepare his staff for their new (female) colleague.

We're not saying that Ms Franklin was a victim of discrimination - though it's easy to believe she was. However, she gave as well as she got, often denigrating her peers and surroundings. How much of her treatment at their hands was down to her being a rarity and how much was simply competition for the next big discovery is debatable.

Ms Franklin was only retroactively given credit for the work she did.

The X-Ray diffusion techniques she learned during her tenure in the French lab led her assistant, Raymond Gosling, to capture the most stunning image of DNA's helical shape. Yet it was James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins who shared the Nobel Prize for the discovery.

Rosalind got her own, in the end. To find out how, you'll have to learn her whole story...

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