Nature Chemistry | The Sceptical Chymist

A great question

[This post is based on the editorial in the March 2011 issue — the full text can be accessed here, available for free to all registered users. We welcome feedback on our editorials in the comments section below.]

Who is the greatest chemist of all time?

These eight simple words pose a question that is far from simple to answer. The first obvious problem is with the concept of ‘greatness’ — how should this be defined and measured? Secondly, would everyone agree with exactly what is meant by the term ‘chemist’? There are some prominent historical figures that both chemists and physicists would claim as their own.

Another complication is a fundamental (and unavoidable) one associated with all questions and polls of this type — the influence of time. Consider the world of sport for example — when a team or an individual becomes very successful, comparisons are often made with so-called ‘greats’ of a bygone era. But in the same way as it would be impossible for the Manchester United teams of 1968 and 1999 to play one another to inform a fair comparison, how do we judge the relative merits of the contributions that Wöhler and Woodward made to chemistry?

In spite of these problems, there is undoubtedly some value in asking (and responding to) questions of this kind. Yes, the answers will be subjective, but it’s the debate surrounding the answers — and indeed the question itself — that often prove more interesting than the final results or ranking. We asked the greatest-chemist question on our journal’s Twitter feed back in early January and gave a comprehensive round-up of the responses we received on this blog.

To our surprise, there were some truly great chemists missing from the list. No Gibbs, no Dalton and no Priestley. One omission in particular, that of the only person to be awarded two Nobel Prizes in Chemistry, sparked some debate in the blogosphere at the Curious Wavefunction and Second Messenger. Was Sanger’s name missing because chemists tend to focus on fundamental topics such as structure and bonding rather than more applied aspects? And, as discussed at There (& Hopefully) Back Again, should our evaluations of the ‘greatness’ of a scientist change when we consider not just their momentous achievements, but also their more nefarious (Haber) and/or eccentric (Pauling) pursuits? The greatest-chemist debate continued on a number of other blogs including ChemBark, and ScienceGeist and we encourage you to read them and their comment threads to get a feeling for what others think.

The main point of asking the question was not to uncover a definitive answer as to who the greatest chemist of all time is, but to see if any consensus did emerge and how many different suggestions were put forward. Whereas in physics it is hard to see past Einstein leading the way in this sort of exercise, we were curious as to whether a similar figure would emerge for chemistry.

Would any of us have picked Pauling (the eventual ‘number 1’) to lead the chemistry one with the same certainty? Of course, Einstein and the photos of him with stereotypical ‘mad-genius’ hair have crossed into popular culture — and this is certainly not the case with Pauling. Is the lack of a recognisable figurehead in chemistry a problem? Perhaps a greater awareness of some of the inspirational chemists of the past would help spark the imagination of budding chemists out there today.

Our Twitter poll, as we suggested at the time, was somewhat arbitrary and unscientific — as is the question itself. Nonetheless, it is clear that, even from such a small data set, many different individuals are considered to be greatest chemist of all time. They can’t all be the greatest, but that matters not — they are all great, and this reflects the strength and diversity of chemistry.

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