Living Liebig’s laboratory legacy
- Published on Monday, 25 May 2015 06:00
Writing for Glasgow City of Science this time around is Kirsty Martin. Chemist, Justus von Liebig starts-off a series of posts over the coming months on important figures in science down the years and how they've impacted on our work today: "Who’s Shoulders Are These Anyway?"
Glasgow is a fantastic place to work as a scientist. We have internationally renowned research institutions which attract great minds from all over the word, as well as a rich history of innovation and discovery over the centuries. It is a privilege to work in one of these institutes with passionate, intelligent people as we each try to uncover another little bit of the puzzle that is cancer.
A scientific career is built on gathering as wide an individual skill set as possible, first as a doctoral student and then as a postdoctoral researcher – usually moving institute every few years. Research institutes benefit from this by bringing together diverse groups of scientists whose skills vary (as well as overlapping in places) depending on where they have studied and worked before. This professional pilgrimage from one laboratory to another over the years is one that postdocs like me take for granted. I for one hadn’t stopped to think much about the fact that this was not always the case.
Rewind 250 years however, and everything looks different. In the 1700’s there was no such thing as a ‘professional’ scientist. There were, and had been, ‘men (and women) of science’ – consider Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke, Laura Bassi, Caroline Herschel – but they largely pursued science as a vocation, in their own homes, funded by a private fortune (or lack thereof!) until their work brought them to the attention of a patron who might financially support their efforts. A ‘laboratory’, as a place where many scientists would perform experiments, had never been heard of.
What I find remarkable is how much one man contributed to change this. Justus von Liebig (1803-1873) was a German chemist, whose interest in science likely started in his father’s workshop, where Liebig senior developed the paints, glues and dyes sold in his store. At the age of 21 Liebig was made Professor of Chemistry at the University of Giessen: and he had an idea about how science students should learn. Instead of simply teaching established facts, he wanted to his students to learn how to pursue new chemical knowledge. His solution was what we now consider the basis of all science education: the laboratory – a place equipped such that he could pursue his own work and at the same time show his students how to perform experiments; and where they could try them for themselves, and develop the original research that would form the basis of their doctorates.
It doesn’t sound like that big a change, does it? But the impact was huge. Soon students were coming to Germany from America to experience this novel teaching style; and it quickly spread through Europe, the UK and the US. The output of knowledge from the laboratory was immense, with Liebig publishing an average of 30 papers per year, proving the effectiveness of the format that is used in both academic and industrial research institutes to this day. I am sure, however, that lab leaders today are grateful not to have to live in a small flat above their lab with their families, as Liebig did!
One of Liebig’s early students was a Scot called Thomas Thompson, who was so influenced by the experience that on his return to Glasgow he set up what is believed to be the first specifically designed undergraduate teaching laboratory for chemistry. This principle of practical learning is the one we still use today in both university and school science classes. Indeed, programmes such as City of Science help us extend it outside the classroom to engage the public. As a man well ahead of his time, Liebig himself appreciated the importance of such public engagement two centuries before it came into vogue! He wrote a series of ‘Familiar Letters on Chemistry’ for publication in a popular German newspaper to help bring an understanding of what was then a relatively new science in the modern world to the general reader.
As if being hailed as one of the greatest chemistry teachers of all time, and changing the process of scientific education and research forever were not enough, Liebig’s legacy can also be seen in our supermarkets every day ... he discovered the product that would become Marmite, and founded the company that created OXO! You can still visit Liebig’s original laboratory at the Liebig Museum, in the German town of Giessen. But if you don’t want to go that far, you can always salute this bust in the University of Glasgow chemistry building, especially if you are, like me, one of those who loves living Liebig’s legacy of laboratory life!
Kirsty Martin graduated in biochemistry from the University of Glasgow in 2006, moved to Dundee to pursue her PhD in cell signalling at the MRC Unit there. She continued her scientific tour of Scotland with a post-doc in advanced imaging techniques at the newly founded IB3 institute at Heriot Watt University before returning to Glasgow where she's currently combining these skill sets working at the Beatson Institute for Cancer Research.
Outside of the lab Kirsty's an avid reader of classic, historical and fantasy literature; she enjoys puzzle and adventure games; and her geek status is cemented by a love of fibrecrafts, particularly knitting and crochet. She's always excited to find things that combine these varied professional and personal interests!
Kirsty will be back on the blog over the coming months with a series of posts on the theme of "Whose Shoulders Are These Anyway?"
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