Victor Goldschmidt bigraphy, stories - Mineralogist and geochemist

Victor Goldschmidt : biography

January 27, 1888 - March 20, 1947

Victor Moritz Goldschmidt ForMemRS (Zürich, January 27, 1888 – March 20, 1947, Oslo)Brian Mason (1992). Victor Moritz Goldschmidt: Father of Modern Geochemistry (Geochemical Society). ISBN 0-941809-03-X was a mineralogist considered (together with Vladimir Vernadsky) to be the founder of modern geochemistry and crystal chemistry, developer of the Goldschmidt Classification of elements.

Early life and career

Heinrich, Victor's Father, with squirrel Goldschmidt was born in Zürich. His parents, Heinrich Jacob Goldschmidt and Amelie Koehne named their son after a colleague of Heinrich, Victor Meyer. There was a history of great scientists and philosophers in both families. The Goldschmidt family came to Norway 1901 when Heinrich Goldschmidt took over a chair as Professor of Chemistry in Kristiania (Oslo).

Goldschmidt’s first important contribution was within the field of geology and mineralogy. His two first larger works were his doctor thesis Die Kontaktmetamorphose im Kristianiagebiet and Geologisch-petrographische Studien im Hochgebirge des südlichen Norwegens.

New theories

A series of publications under the title Geochemische Verteilungsgesetze der Elemente (geochemical laws of distribution of the elements) is usually referred to as the start of geochemistry, the science that describes the distribution of the chemical elements in nature. It was in this book that he coined the term lanthanide contraction. The geochemistry has not only greatly inspired the field of mineralogy and geology but also theoretical chemistry and crystallography. Goldschmidt’s work on atom and ion radii has been of enormous importance for crystallography. His work in this area has no doubt inspired the introduction of the Pauling covalent, ionic, and the Van der Waals radius.

Goldschmidt took great interest in the technical application of his science; the utilization of olivine for industrial refractory goes back to him. He was for many years the head of the Norwegian Committee for Raw Material (Statens Råstoffkomité).


There has hardly ever been a person in the Norwegian university world that made such an early and rapid career as Goldschmidt. Without even taking the usual exams or degrees he got a post-doctoral fellowship from the university already at the age of 21 (1909). He obtained his Norwegian doctor’s degree when he was 23 years old (1911). This kind of degree is usually obtained at an age of 30 to 40 years, and even 50 years and more is not unusual.

In 1912 Goldschmidt got the most distinguished Norwegian scientific award (the Fridtjof Nansen belonning) for his work Die Kontaktmetamorphose im Kristianiagebiet. The same year he was made Docent (Associate Professor) of Mineralogy and Petrography at the University of Oslo (known at that time as "Det Kongelige Frederiks Universitet").

In 1914 he applied for a professorship in Stockholm. The selecting committee unanimously chose Goldschmidt for the chair. But before the Swedish king had made the final official approbation, the University of Kristiania was able to secure him a similar chair. This was quite an unusual procedure and speed for appointing a professor. Usually it would take at least two years to obtain a new chair at a Norwegian university and one or two years to have the professor appointed. In Goldschmidt’s case it seems that all tradition of slowness was abolished, a fact that the University of Oslo shall always be grateful for. In 1929 Goldschmidt was called to the chair of mineralogy in Göttingen, but he had to leave this position after the Nazis came to power, and he returned to Oslo in 1935. From 1930 to 1933, Reinhold Mannkopff was an assistant to Goldschmidt at Göttingen.

Later life

On October 26, 1942, Goldschmidt was arrested at the orders of the German occupying powers as part of the persecution of Jews in Norway during World War II. Initially held in Bredtveit concentration camp for two days and then in Berg concentration camp, he was released on 5 November, only to be rearrested on 25 November. However, as he was on the pier and about to be deported to Auschwitz, when he was held back in Norway on the condition that he lend his scientific expertise to help German authorities. Goldschmidt later fled to Sweden and went on to England (where some of the Koehne family lived, and still reside today).

His activities in England were described on the 60th anniversary of his death, by the Geological Society in "Goldschmidt in England".

The account states that he was flown to England on March 3, 1943 by a British intelligence unit, and provided information about technical developments in Norway. After a short period of uncertainty about his future status, he was assigned to the Macaulay Institute for Soil Research (in Aberdeen) of the Agricultural Research Council. He participated in discussions about the German use of raw materials and production of heavy water. He attended open meetings in Cambridge, Manchester, Sheffield, Edinburgh and Aberdeen and lectured at the British Coal Utilisation Research Association on the presence of rare elements in coal ash.

His British professional associates and contacts included Leonard Hawkes, C E Tilley and W H Bragg, J D Bernal, Dr W G (later Sir William) Ogg. While at the Macaulay Institute, Goldschmidt was elected a Foreign Member of the Royal Society, awarded the Wollaston Medal, and an honorary Doctor of Laws (LLD) by the University of Aberdeen.

He moved from Aberdeen to Rothamsted, where he was popular and nicknamed ‘Goldie’. However, he wanted to go back to Oslo – not welcomed by all Norwegians – and returned there on 26 June 1946, but died soon after, at age 59.

A larger work, Geochemistry, was edited and published posthumously in England in 1954.

He was created a Knight of the Order of St. Olav in 1929.

The mountain ridge Goldschmidtfjella in Oscar II Land at Spitsbergen are named after him.

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