Justus von Liebig

Justus von Liebig bigraphy, stories - German chemist

Justus von Liebig : biography

df=y December 5 – 18 April 1873

Justus Freiherr von Liebig (12 May 1803 – 18 April 1873) was a German chemist who made major contributions to agricultural and biological chemistry, and worked on the organization of organic chemistry. When he was a professor, he devised the modern laboratory-oriented teaching method, and for such innovations, he is regarded one of the greatest chemistry teachers of all time. He is considered the "father of the fertilizer industry" for his discovery of nitrogen as an essential plant nutrient, and his formulation of the Law of the Minimum which described the effect of individual nutrients on crops. He also developed a manufacturing process for beef extracts, and founded a company, Liebig Extract of Meat Company, that later trademarked the Oxo brand beef bouillon cube.


Major works

  • (1840)
  • (1842)
  • Familiar Letters on Chemistry (1843)


Liebig was born in Darmstadt into a middle-class family. From childhood he was fascinated with chemistry. At the age of 13, Liebig lived through the year without a summer, when the majority of food-crops in the northern hemisphere were destroyed by a volcanic winter. Germany was among the hardest-hit in the global famine that ensued, and the experience is said to have shaped Liebig’s later work. Thanks in part to Liebig’s innovations in fertilizers and agriculture, the 1816 famine became known as "the last great subsistence crisis in the Western world".Evans, Robert , Smithsonian Magazine. July 2002

Liebig was apprenticed to the apothecary Gottfried Pirsch (1792–1870) in Heppenheim and attended the University of Bonn, studying under Karl Wilhelm Gottlob Kastner, a business associate of his father. When Kastner moved to the University of Erlangen, Liebig followed him and later took his doctorate from Erlangen. Liebig did not receive the doctorate until well after he had left Erlangen, and the circumstances are clouded by a possible scandal [see Munday (1990)]. Liebig left Erlangen in March 1822, in part because of his involvement with the radical Korps Rhenania (a nationalist student organization) but also because of his hopes for more advanced chemical studies.

In autumn 1822 Liebig went to study in Paris on a grant obtained for him by Kastner from the Hessian government. He worked in the private laboratory of Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac, and was also befriended by Alexander von Humboldt and Georges Cuvier (1769–1832). After leaving Paris, Liebig returned to Darmstadt and married Henriette Moldenhauer, the daughter of a state official.

In 1824 at the age of 21 and with Humboldt’s recommendation, Liebig became a professor at the University of Giessen. He established the world’s first major school of chemistry there. He received an appointment from the King of Bavaria to the University of Munich in 1852, where he remained until his death in 1873 in Munich. He became Freiherr (baron) in 1845. He is buried in the Alter Südfriedhof in Munich.

He founded and edited from 1832 the journal Annalen der Chemie, which became the leading German-language journal of Chemistry. The volumes from his lifetime are often referenced just as Liebigs Annalen; and following his death the title was officially changed to Justus Liebigs Annalen der Chemie.

He was elected a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1837.

The young Liebig: 1843 lithograph after an 1821 painting (Liebighaus)

Research and development

Liebig improved organic analysis with the Kaliapparat – a five-bulb device that used a potassium hydroxide solution to remove the organic combustion product carbon dioxide. He downplayed the role of humus in plant nutrition and discovered that plants feed on nitrogen compounds and carbon dioxide derived from the air, as well as on minerals in the soil. One of his most recognized and far-reaching accomplishments was the invention of nitrogen-based fertilizer. Liebig believed that nitrogen must be supplied to plant roots in the form of ammonia, and recognized the possibility of substituting chemical fertilizers for natural (animal dung, etc.) ones. Nitrogen fertilizers are now widely used throughout the world, and their production is a substantial segment of the chemical industry. He also formulated the Law of the Minimum, stating that a plant’s development is limited by the one essential mineral that is in the relatively shortest supply, visualized as "Liebig’s barrel". This concept is a qualitative version of the principles used for determining the application of fertilizer in modern agriculture.