Finding Yttrium: Johan Gadolin and the Development of a 'Discovery'

Charlotte Abney, Yale University

Chemical Heritage Foundation, Brown Bag Lecture Series

Tuesday, March 10, 2015 1:00 pm EDT

Time: 12:00 noon to 1:00 p.m.
Location: CHF, 315 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106

Open to the public

Finnish chemist Johan Gadolin (1760–1852) often receives credit for the discovery of the element yttrium, a claim based on a paper published in 1794 detailing his recognition of a new earth, later named yttria, found in the chemical analysis of a mineral from a quarry in Ytterby, Sweden. However, Gadolin neither found the stone itself nor isolated the element, and the substance that he describes in the paper is one of a fundamental class of material substances that ceased to exist in the first decades of the 19th century.

Drawing on Gadolin’s writing, works in the wider context of contemporary chemistry, and subsequent chemical literature, this talk establishes the meaning of Gadolin’s work within the late-18th-century chemical community and explores how his observations were transformed into the discovery of an element. Gadolin was the descriptor of a new earth, as defined contemporaneously, and became the discoverer of the first rare-earth element only by the transformation of the claim over time. The example of yttrium makes clear the ambiguities, hidden labor, and social negotiation of the facts of chemistry that may be hidden behind simply worded statements of discovery, as well as the potential anachronistic difference between a scientific artifact referred to today and the corresponding historical subject of study, and also contributes to a more authentic, if more complicated, history of chemistry that better describes the process through which the current body of knowledge was built.

Charlotte Abney is a doctoral student at Yale University. Abney graduated from Ohio University in 2003 with a BS in journalism and earned an MA in Scandinavian history from Linkoping University in Sweden in 2004. She subsequently taught middle-school science and high-school chemistry for six years before returning to graduate school. At Yale her research focuses on chemistry in Sweden at the turn of the 19th century, the relationship between Scandinavian and European and worldwide scientific communities, the history of textbooks and science education, and the nature and popularization of scientific discovery. She also works as an assistant in the scientific collections and rare books at the Yale Medical Historical Library.

About Brown Bag Lectures

Brown Bag Lectures (BBLs) are a series of weekly informal talks on the history of chemistry or related subjects, including the history and social studies of science, technology, and medicine. Based on original research (sometimes still in progress), these talks are given by local scholars for an audience of CHF staff and fellows and interested members of the public.

For more information, please call 215.873.8289 or e-mail