November 21, 2006 11:28 AM PST

Did a Frenchman beat Mendeleev to the periodic table?

Credit for the periodic table of the elements generally goes to Dimitri Ivanovich Mendeleev, but a specialist in the history and philosophy of chemistry says the Russian chemist probably peeked at the work of predecessors.

In his new book, "The Periodic Table: Its Story and Its Significance," Eric Scerri says that six now obscure scientists came up with periodic tables in the 1860s, before Mendeleev sketched out the basis of his version of the table, which graphically lays out the elements and their properties, on the back of an invitation in 1869.

The first was a French geologist named Alexandre Emile Béguyer de Chancourtois, but his publisher was unable to publish the complex diagram of the periodic table that he submitted with the article, according to Scerri, a chemist at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Although Mendeleev said the idea for the table came to him in a dream one night during a time when he toiled over a textbook, the Russian probably had a peek at Chancourtois' work.

"I frankly don't believe it," Scerri, in a prepared statement, said of Mendeleev's historical claims. "Mendeleev wasn't isolated in Siberia, which is the way he is sometimes portrayed. He spoke all the major European languages, was familiar with the literature and had traveled in Europe. He mentioned the precursors of the periodic table, but not the ones who actually devised systems. He surely must have known about them."

Does this mean Mendeleev should be knocked out of the scientific pantheon? No. His version of the table became the standard and the fundamental organizing principle of modern chemistry. He also championed the idea until it became widely accepted, and he was a celebrated scientific figure who helped refine industrial chemistry.

Mendeleev also had an almost intuitive grasp of chemistry, so the organizing principles he chose to embody in his table became an enduring system. Mendeleev, in fact, predicted some elements and their properties before the elements were discovered.

Mendeleev announced his findings about organizing elements in a large article published in 1871 and for several years continued to refine the periodic table.

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Thank you for this nice brief review of my book Michael.

Yes the periodic system really did originate with De Chancourtois in my view, although this geologist did little to develop his idea.

I was not intending to steal any of the thunder from Mendeleev but just tracing the history of the origins of chemical periodicity.

Eric Scerri,
author of The periodic table, Its Story and Its Significance.
Posted by nobelium (2 comments )
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