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Celebrating the Life

Friedrich Konrad Beilstein, 1838-1906


Beilstein Beilstein is a name known to millions of chemists, thanks to the ongoing popularity of his seminal Handbuch and later the database derived from it, but few people remember anything about the man himself. No English-language biography has ever been published.

Friedrich Konrad Beilstein was born to German parents in St. Petersburg, Russia, on February 5, 1838. He was educated in St. Petersburg, and went to Germany for further study at the age of 15. His education in chemistry was taken with illustrious mentors such as Robert Bunsen in Heidelberg, Justus von Liebig in Munich, and August Kekulé. He earned his doctorate with Friedrich Wöhler at Göttingen in 1858 at the age of 20. From there he worked with Adolphe Wurtz in Paris, and in 1860 he returned to Göttingen to work in Wöhler's laboratory. There he built a reputation as an excellent teacher.

In 1866 Beilstein took a position as Mendeleev's successor at the Technological Institute in St. Petersburg, and later became a Russian subject. There he primarily taught analytical chemistry and authored an important textbook, Anleitung zur qualitativen chemischen Analyse which went through several editions and was translated into several other languages, including an English version by William Ramsay. Although personal conflicts with Mendeleev and other Russian chemists over the next 15 years damaged his career, Beilstein remained in St. Petersburg for the rest of his life.

In the late 1870s Beilstein set out to write a textbook for organic chemistry based on material he had been compiling for over a decade, but as he proceeded it began to evolve into a reference work on all known organic compounds. In an 1878 letter to Erlenmeyer, Beilstein laid out his vision for the book: "I want to put together in one volume the complete material of org. chemistry ordered completely and clearly with exact information about the literature. Pretty speeches, charming comparisons, lively pictures and the rest of it are as good as completely absent" (quoted in Gordin). His obsession with thoroughness and accuracy required him to read, annotate and recheck every article in the entire organic chemistry literature, a daunting task even in 1880. He nevertheless did this work without any significant assistance.

The Handbuch der organischen Chemie was published in German in two volumes in 1881-83. It contained 2200 pages and 15,000 organic compounds. It was well received among chemists, who called it indispensible. H.C. Bolton, in his Select Bibliography of Chemistry, (Washington DC: Smithsonian, 1893) annotated it simply as "a stupendous monument of industrious, intelligent compilation." Beilstein immediately began to work, alone, on a second edition: the first volume appeared in 1885 and the third volume in 1889. For the third edition Beilstein took on an assistant editor, and the four-volume set was published starting in 1899. Supplements and an index brought it to eight volumes by 1906.

Beilstein's death in 1906 was barely noted in Russian circles. The nationalist prejudices of that era (against which Beilstein himself, as a German living in Russia, fought unsuccessfully later in life) were splintering the scientific establishment, condemning the handbook pioneer to almost immediate obscurity even as his Handbuch continued to grow and flourish. Editorial operations moved to Germany where it was produced thereafter by the German Chemical Society. In 1909 the editors adopted a new system of categorizing all organic compounds, the Beilstein System. In 1918, as World War I was ending, Springer-Verlag began publication of the monumental Fourth Edition of the Handbuch, which would stretch over 80 years, five supplementary series, and 500 volumes.

Although the later incarnation of the Handbuch was far larger than Beilstein's own versions, it remained true to his vision of comprehensive, reliable coverage of the organic literature for decades to come. Eventually, however, the sheer enormity of the chemical literature rendered such perfection impossible, and the Handbuch began to lag behind the literature, especially during and after the disruptions caused by World War II. The 4th Supplement covering the literature through 1959 was not fully completed until 1987. The 5th Supplement, now in English, essentially abandoned the idea of comprehensiveness and settled for a voluminous but more selective coverage of heterocyclic literature between 1960 and 1979. It finally ceased publication in print in 1998, nearly twenty years after its literature closing date and long after most libraries had given up on it as a grossly expensive dinosaur. Beilstein's concept had served well for over a century, but clearly new ideas were needed.

Fortunately, Beilstein's work was resurrected by the digital medium, and eventually the Internet. The Beilstein Institute began migrating the Handbuch to a database format in the 1980s, and produced fee-based versions on STN and Dialog, then CD-ROM subsets, before partnering with MDL and Elsevier in the 1990s to produce an Internet-based client-server system called Beilstein Crossfire. Elsevier later purchased the system outright and launched its web-based successor Reaxys. This database, containing data on millions of compounds and reactions, would no doubt astound and delight Friedrich Beilstein if he could see it today, although he would surely be dismayed to see his name erased from the product due to licensing disputes. The Institute no longer has any connection to the database launched by its namesake over 130 years ago.


Bibliography

Gordin, Michael D. "Beilstein unbound: unraveling the Handbuch der organischen Chemie." Chemical Heritage, 21(4) 2003/4, 10-11, 32-36.

Gordin, Michael D. "Beilstein unbound: the pedagogical unraveling of a man and his Handbuch." in Kaiser, David, ed., Pedagogy and the practice of science: historical and contemporary perspectives. (MIT Press, 2005) 11-39.

Hjelt. [Obituary] Chemische Berichte, 40 (1907) 5041-78.

Huntress, E.H. "1938: the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of Friedrich Konrad Beilstein." Journal of Chemical Education, 15 (1938) 303-9.

[Obituary] Journal of the Chemical Society, 99 (1911) 1646-49.

Richter, F. "How Beilstein is made." Journal of Chemical Education, 15 (1938) 310-16.