28 July 1999

Exhibition at Heidelberg University Museum: Robert Wilhelm Bunsen – A Life in the Service of Science (1811-1899)

One of the things everyone remembers from chemistry classes at school is the Bunsen burner. Paradoxically, the scientist it is named after – Robert Wilhelm Bunsen – appears to have had only a minor part in its development. But he was one of the most important chemists of the 19th century and his association with Heidelberg University was a long and fruitful one.

Born in Goettingen on 30 March 1811, Bunsen went to school in Goettingen and Holzminden and then enrolled at Goettingen University to study natural sciences and mathematics. He was awarded his doctorate at the early age of 19 for a dissertation on different kinds of hygrometer.

Immediately after that Bunsen embarked on an extended study trip through Europe visting all the major centres of chemical research in Germany and France. By way of Berlin, Giessen, Heidelberg and Bonn, Bunsen finally arrived in Paris in 1832 where he attended lectures at the famous École Polytechnique. He returned to Goettingen via Vienna in 1834. Only two years later he gained his Habilitation with work on organometallic compounds. In 1836 when he was working in Kassel he lost the sight of his right eye after an explosion in his laboratory. Moving from Kassel to Marburg he took over the directorship of the Chemical Laboratory there and was appointed extraordinary professor on 7 August 1839.

Bunsen's invention of the carbon-zinc electrode dates from his Marburg period (1841), as do his experiments on the composition of gases given off by blast furnaces. His findings were to lead to a very significant reduction in coal consumption. In 1850 Bunsen left Marburg for Breslau where he met Gustav Kirchhoff, another of the century's most gifted scientists, who came to Heidelberg in 1854.

In 1852 Bunsen was appointed professor at the University of Heidelberg, where he remained until his death in 1899. May 1853 saw commencement of the work on the Chemical Laboratory, soon to become the largest and best-equipped lab of its kind anywhere in the world. Bunsen's presence in Heidelberg attracted many other famous chemists of the day (August Kekulé, Emil Erlenmeyer, Adolf von Baeyer, Henry Roscoe) and made the University of Heidelberg one of the major world centres of chemical research.

In 1859 Bunsen and the physicist Gustav Kirchhoff collaborated on their most significant achievement, the development of spectrum analysis, the key to the discovery of many hitherto unidentified chemical elements. Bunsen taught at the University until his death in 1899 at the age of 78. Nine years after his death (1908) a monument was erected in his honour (Hauptstrasse). The second half of the 19th century established Heidelberg's renown as the leading German university of the age, due not least to the simultaneous presence of three of the century's most important scientists: Bunsen, Kirchhoff and Hermann Helmholtz.

University Museum, Grabengasse 1, D-69117 Heidelberg.
5 August – 4 November 1999, Tuesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Closed on Sundays and national holidays

The exhibition "Robert Wilhelm Bunsen: A Life in the Service of Science (1811-1899)" has been organized with the help of the Archives of the University of Heidelberg and the Hermann Schelenz Institute of Pharmaceutic and Cultural History (Heidelberg).

For further information please contact:
Dr. Michael Schwarz
Universitaet Heidelberg
Pressesprecher/Public Information Officer
Postfach 105760
D-69047 Heidelberg

phone +49 6221 542310, fax +49 6221 542317
e-mail: michael.schwarz@rektorat.uni-heidelberg.de

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Updated: 11.08.99