Marcellin Berthelot

French chemist and politician (1827-1907)

Pierre Eugène Marcellin Berthelot FRS FRSE (25 October 1827 – 18 March 1907) was a French chemist and politician noted for the Thomsen-Berthelot principle of thermochemistry. He synthesized many organic compounds from inorganic substances, providing a large amount of counterevidence to the theory of Jöns Jakob Berzelius that organic compounds required organisms in their synthesis.

Marcellin Berthelot


  • Science... dominates all things, it alone is of any definite utility. No man, no institution shall henceforth have an enduring authority if they do not conform themselves to its precepts.
    • Science et Morale (1897) as quoted by P. Q. Keegan, "Mr. Berthelot on Science and Morality" (1897) Natural Science Vol. 10, No. 59 (Jan, 1897) p 359.

Les Origines de l'Alkimie (1885)

As quoted by M. M. Pattison Muir, A History of Chemical Theories and Laws (1907) unless otherwise noted.
  • Chemistry is not a primitive science, like geometry or astronomy; it is constructed from the debris of a previous scientific formation; a formation half chimerical and half positive, itself founded on the treasure slowly amassed by the practical discoveries of metallurgy, medicine, industry, and domestic economy. It has to do with alchemy, which pretended to enrich its adepts by teaching them to manufacture gold and silver, to shield them from diseases by the preparation of the panacea, and finally to obtain for them perfect felicity by identifying them with the soul of the world and the universal spirit.
    • (Muir, p. 2)
  • There abides in nature a certain form of matter which, being discovered and brought by art to perfection, converts to itself, proportionally, all imperfect bodies that it touches. ...It rested on the indisputable appearance of an indefinite cycle of transformations, reproducing themselves in chemical operations, without either beginning or end.
    • p. 283 (Muir, p. 6)

Speech at M. Berthelot's Scientific Jubilee (Nov 24, 1901)

Upon presentation at the Sarbonne, Paris, of the Bertholet Jubilee Medal by Émile Loubet, President of France, and received notification that he would be decorated with the Grand Cordon of Charles III, by the Queen Regent of Spain; as quoted in The Chemist and Druggist: The Newsweekly for Pharmacy (Nov 30, 1901) Vol. 59, p. 868.
  • Your sympathy makes the lamp which is on the point of being extinguished in the everlasting night shine with a final brilliancy. The respect which humanity shows to aged persons is the expression of the solidarity which unites the present generations to those which have gone before and to those which will follow.
  • In fact, what we are can only be attributed for a small part to our labour and personal individuality, because we owe it almost entirely to our forefathers, both of blood and mind.
  • If each one of us adds something to the common weal in the domain of science, or art, or morality, the reason is because long series of generations have lived, worked, thought, and suffered before us. The science which you honour to-day has been created by the patient labours of our predecessors.
  • Each one of us, whatever may have been his individual initiative, ought also to attribute a considerable portion of his success to his contemporaries who are working at the same time as himself at the great common task.
  • In effect, it may be declared emphatically that no one has a right to claim the exclusive merit of the brilliant discoveries of the past century. Science is essentially a collective work, prosecuted during the course of time by the efforts of a multitude of workers of every age and every nation, succeeding each other and associated in virtue of a tacit understanding for the research of truth in its purity, and for the application of this truth to the continual transformation of the condition of all men.
  • Gentlemen, formerly savants were looked upon as a little group of amateurs and leisured people, maintained at the expense of the labouring classes, and performing a work of luxury for the amusement and distraction of the favourites of fortune. This narrow and unjust view which took so little into account, our services and devotion to truth, this prejudice, ended by disappearing when the development of science showed that Nature's laws were applicable to practical industry, and their effect was to replace the old traditional receipts and empirics by profitable rules founded on observation and experience. To-day who would dare to look upon science as a sterile amusement in presence the general increase of national and private riches which resulted from it?
  • The most interesting of the services rendered by science is perhaps shown by comparing the servile and miserable condition of the popular masses in the past with their present state, already so much raised in dignity and comfort, without prejudice to the hopes which they are gradually realising.
  • Is there still a statesman who doubts the services greater still that may be expected from this incessant progress?
  • Science is the benefactor of humanity.
  • Thus it is that the tangible utility of scientific results has made the public authorities understand that laboratory work should be encouraged and sustained, because it is economically a benefit to all and for the public health.
  • Science carries its legitimate pretensions further. To-day it claims the material, intellectual, and moral direction of society. Under its impulse modern civilisation marches with an increasingly rapid stride.
  • Gentlemen, since the first half of the century that has terminated, without going further back, the world has strangely altered. The men of my generation have seen come into play, beside and above the nature known since antiquity, if not an antithesis, a counter-nature... but a superior nature, and to some extent transcendent, where the power of indıvidual is centupled by the transformation of forces until then unknown or not understood, borrowed from light, magnetism, and electricity.
  • A new conception of human destiny results from a profound knowledge of the universe and the physical and moral constitution of man, directed by the fundamental notions of universal solidarity between all classes and all nations.
  • According as the bonds uniting the peoples of the world together are multiplied and lightened by the progress of science and by unity of the doctrines and precepts that it deducts from facts, and imposes without violence and yet in a relentless manner to all convictions, these ideas have assumed a growing and more and more irresistible importance. They tend to become a purely human basis of nature, morality, and politics.
  • Hence the rôle of savants, as individuals and as a social class, has unceasingly developed in modern states. But our duties towards other men increase in the same ratio, and let it never be forgotten; let it proclaimed in this hall, in this palace of French science.
  • It not by reason of the egoistical satisfaction of our private vanity that the world-to-day pays homage to savants. No; it is because it knows that a savant really worthy of the name devotes a disinterested life to the great work of our epoch—I mean to say to the improvement, too slow, alas! for our taste, of the condition of every one, from the richest and happiest to the humble, the poor, and the suffering. That is what the public declared nine years ago in this same hall when honouring Pasteur. That is what my friend Chaplain has tried to express on the beautiful medal which the President of the Republic will presently offer me. I do not know if I have completely fulfilled noble ideal traced by the artist, but I have tried to make it object and end, the directing idea of my existence.

Quotes about Berthelot

  • Marcellin Berthelot... observed ants as a hobby. He published in 1886 under the title Science et philophie... several essays. One... "Les cités animales et leur évolution". ...He was convinced that the same instinct of sociability was active among human races and among animal ones. He considered the hypothesis of the social contract as a chimerical one. ...Ten years later, in another collection of essays... Science et morale... [h]e considered that it is more useful to compare human societies with ant colonies than with beehives, because while in the latter laws are uniform, in the former there is a place for individual intitiatives.
    • Jean-Marc Drouin, "Three Philosophical Approaches to Entomology" New Challenges to Philosophy of Science (2013) p. 383, ed., Andersen, ‎Dieks, Gonzalez, Uebel, Wheeler.
  • [Berthelot] is not only a great chemist, but also a great philosopher. He possessed a universal spirit. His discovery of the synthesis of organic materials would be enough to immortalize his name. His work on explosive materials were also invaluable services...
    • Louis Pasteur, as quoted by Arthur Bower Griffiths, Biographies of Scientific Men (1912) p. 147.
by Arthur Bower Griffiths
  • In 1851, at the age of twenty-four, he entered the College de France, as préparateur of the lectures on chemistry (under Balard, the discoverer of bromine).
  • He produced over a thousand memoirs, embracing every department of chemistry.
  • Although Wohler, in 1828, produced urea artificially, and Kolbe synthetized acetic acid in 1845, Berthelot was undoubtedly the creator or founder of organic synthesis.
  • [H]e was not only a great chemist, but a politician, philosopher, and author.
  • Probably the most important syntheses of his are the production of acetylene from carbon and hydrogen, and methane or marsh gas, by means of the well-known Berthelot's reaction; and of dynamical chemistry, his most important discovery is "the law of maximum work."
  • His scientific labours were immense, and he completely revolutionized chemistry in more departments than one. He transformed agriculture; proved that inorganic and organic bodies obey the same laws; established "la théorie des affinités"; and invented thermo-chemistry.
  • The first half of the nineteenth century was devoted to analytical chemistry—this being due to the great work of Berzelius. The second half, however, was the era of Berthelot or synthetical chemistry.
  • Berthelot believed in the possibility of wheat-growing and cattle-raising being superseded by the discovery of artificial substitutes for the necessaries of life. ...Berthelot's idea of the synthesis of substances that will take the place of wheat and meat is the most audacious flight of fancy... but it need not... be classed among the impossibilities.
  • Berthelot was justified by accomplished facts in stating that applied science has done more for mankind in the last three-quarters of a century than all the progress in all ages that preceded it.
  • Berthelot was quite sure that physics and chemistry would soon solve the problem of aerial navigation, and he significantly remarked that when they do so " customhouses will fall of themselves."
  • Although glycerine was discovered by Scheele in 1779, and its formula established by Pelouze in 1836, it was not until 1854 that its true composition was known... [when] Berthelot... proved that it is an alcoholic compound capable of interacting with... acids as acetic and palmitic.
  • In 1860 Berthelot's Chimie Organique fondée sur la Synthèse, was published. It was the first... based entirely on synthesis.
  • [O]f the numerous syntheses of Berthelot, or the building up of chemical compounds, many... were [previously] only obtained [naturally] through... life, either animal or vegetable.
  • In 1864 Berthelot began his great work on thermo-chemistry, and in 1879... published... Essai de Mécanique Chimique fondée sur la Thermo-chimie.
  • His laws are... (1) The heat disengaged in any reaction is a measure of the chemical and physical work accomplished in the reaction. (2) The total thermal value of a reaction is dependent only on the initial and final states of the changing system. (3) "The Law of Maximum Work," or "the theorem of the necessity of reactions"... This law is the fundamental principle of Berthelot's thermo-chemistry: "The quantity of heat evolved in a reaction measures the sum of the physical and chemical changes which occur in that reaction"—"ce principe fournit la mesure des affinités chimiques."
  • Berthelot's agricultural station and laboratory were at Meudon, and here experiments on vegetable soils, the fixation of atmospheric nitrogen in soils by the agency of microbes, the action of electricity on the growth of plants, etc., were conducted. Berthelot states that twenty-five pounds of nitrogen per annum per acre might be fixed by bacteria.
  • During the siege of Paris, Berthelot was President of the Scientific Committee of National Defence, and was occupied in the manufacture of explosives, and in 1883 he published, in two volumes, his work, Sur la Force des Matieres Explosives... a valuable contribution to the science...
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