Svante Arrhenius - Father of Physical Chemistry

Biography of Svante Arrhenius

Svante Arrhenius (1859-1927), Swedish physicist and chemist in his laboratory, 1909.
Svante Arrhenius (1859-1927), Swedish physicist and chemist in his laboratory, 1909. Print Collector/Getty Images / Getty Images

Svante August Arrhenius  (February 19, 1859 – October 2, 1927)  was a Nobel-Prize winning scientist from Sweden. His most significant contributions were in the field of chemistry, although he was originally a physicist. Arrhenius is one of the founders of the discipline of physical chemistry. He is known for the Arrhenius equation, the theory of ionic dissociation, and his definition of an Arrhenius acid.

While he was not the first person to describe the greenhouse effect, he was the first to apply physical chemistry to predict the extent of global warming based on increased carbon dioxide emissions. In other words, Arrhenius used science to calculate the effect of human-caused activity on global warming. In honor of his contributions, there is a lunar crater named Arrhenius, the Arrhenius Labs at Stockholm University, and a mountain named Arrheniusfjellet at Spitsbergen, Svalbard.

Born: Feburary 19, 1859, Wik Castle, Sweden (also known as Vik or Wijk)

Died: October 2, 1927 (age 68), Stockholm Sweden

Nationality: Swedish

Education: Royal Institute of Technology, Uppsala University, Stockholm University

Doctoral Advisors: Per Teodor Cleve, Erik Edlund

Doctoral Student: Oskar Benjamin Klein

Awards: Davy Medal (1902), Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1903), ForMemRS (1903), William Gibbs Award (1911), Franklin Medal (1920)


Arrhenius was the son of Svante Gustav Arrhenius and Carolina Christina Thunberg. His father was a land surveyor at Uppsala Unversity. Arrhenius taught himself to read at age three and became known as a math prodigy. He started at the Cathedral school in Uppsala in the fifth grade, although he was only eight years old.

He graduated in 1876 and enrolled in the University of Uppsala to study physics, chemistry, and mathematics.

In 1881, Arrhenius left Uppsala, where he was studying under Per Teodor Cleve, to study under the physicist Erik Edlund at the Physical Institute of the Swedish Academy of Science. Initially, Arrhenius helped Edlund with his work measuring the electromotive force in spark discharges, but he soon moved on to his own research. In 1884, Arrhenius presented his thesis Recherches sur la conductibilité galvanique des électrolytes (Investigations on the galvanic conductivity of electrolytes), which concluded that electrolytes dissolved in water dissociate into positive and negative electrical charges. Further, he proposed chemical reactions occurred between opposite-charged ions. Most of the 56 theses proposed in Arrhenius' dissertation remain accepted to this day. While the association between chemical activity and electrical behavior is understood now, the concept was not well-received by scientists at the time. Even so, the concepts in the dissertation earned Arrhenius the 1903 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, making him the first Swedish Nobel laureate.

In 1889 Arrhenius proposed the concept of an activation energy or energy barrier that must be overcome for a chemical reaction to occur.

He formulated the Arrhenius equation, which relates activation energy of a chemical reaction to the rate at which it proceeds.

Arrhenius became a lecturer at Stockholm University College (now called Stockholm University) in 1891, professor of physics in 1895 (with opposition), and rector in 1896.

In 1896, Arrhenius applied physical chemistry calculate the temperature change on the Earth's surface in response to an increase in carbon dioxide concentration. Initially an attempt to explain ice ages, his work led him to conclude human activities, including the burning of fossil fuels, generated enough carbon dioxide to cause global warming. A form of Arrhenius' formula to calculate the temperature change is still in use today for climate study, although the modern equation accounts for factors not included in Arrhenius's work.

Svante married Sofia Rudbeck, a former pupil. They were married from 1894 to 1896 and had a son Olof Arrhenius. Arrhenius was married a second time, to Maria Johannson (1905 to 1927). They had two daughters and one son.

In 1901 Arrhenius was elected to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. He was officially a member of the Nobel Committee for Physics and a de facto member of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry. Arrhenius was known to have aided Nobel Prize awards for his friends and he attempted to deny them to his enemies.

In later years, Arrhenius studied other disciplines, including physiology, geography, and astronomy. He published Immunochemistry in 1907, which discussed how to use physical chemistry to study toxins and antitoxins. He believed radiation pressure was responsible for comets, the aurora, and the Sun's corona. He believed the theory of panspermia, in which life might have moved from planet to planet by the transport of spores. He proposed a universal language, which he based on English.

In September of 1927, Arrhenius suffered from acute intestinal inflammation. He died on October 2 of that year and was buried in Uppsala.