The Tragic Triumph of M.S. Tswett


My heart breaks for a lot of people in history. Without any sort of social safety net or obstetrics or valid peer review, life was pretty crummy for many of them. M.S. Tswett is one of those heartbreakers. Almost every week, I use one of his discoveries with applications very similar to his, for in 1903, he discovered chromatography while studying chemicals in plants. Thirty years later, it became an accepted technique. Too bad he was already dead!

Before chromatography, when a chemist wanted to separate a complex mixture, say, things in a plant leaf or stem, the chemist had to chemically isolate and crystallize the molecules of study. Most of the time, this was done through a series of chemical reactions. Tswett was a botanist and he did things differently. He separated plant pigments, various types of chlorophylls, carotenes,  and xanthophylls, by allowing the chemicals to be washed through a tube of solid material. The differences in chemical attraction between the solvent and the solid and the pigments caused them to separate in bands. The ones that had more in common with the solvent moved faster through the tube. The ones more attracted to the solid came out later. This is pretty much the basis of one of the most widely used chemical techniques ever–chromatography

Little Mikhail Semenovich Tswett had a sad start. He was born to Russian parents during their vacation in Italy. (His mother was originally from Italy so perhaps she went there to visit family.) It’s not known if he was an early surprise but soon after, his mother died. Mikhail was left in Switzerland, frequently visited by his father, who gained a new family He was ever to be a man without a country. He got a Switzerland and moved to Russia afterwards to be near his father. Sadly, his non-Russian thesis wasn’t acceptable in that country, nor was Mikhail’s accent. He sounded more French than Russian! He ended up getting another Ph.D. and became a professor (for female students) in Poland  where he developed his famous technique. Was it an overnight sensation? No. His chromatography of brown algae pigments gave a different result than the crystallization results of the famous botanist Molisch in  Prague. This made the poor Tswett a bit of an outcast. Another botanist, who later won the Nobel Prize, Willszateter, couldn’t reproduce Tswett’s work (it was later discerned that he didn’t have the right chemicals.)  Chromatography was declared “odd” and pretty much ignored. Tswett must have struggled financially because it wasn’t until he was forty that he married a librarian and companion in his lab work. Tswett had to flee back to Russia during WWI and died there at age 47, unable to overcome the declaration of his work as odd.

Chromatography means color (chroma) writing (graphein) but Tswett also means color in Russian. Pretty cool, isn’t it? I wonder if he ever suspected that his name would be on so many lips over a hundred years after it was discovered.

This blog entry is dedicated to the release of a new book, Pawn of the Phoenix, a detective novel set in 1903, the year of chromatography’s birth.


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