Most people think of chemistry only in the context of laboratory experiments, toxic compounds, or food additives. However, this field is much wider — everything you see, hear, smell, touch, and taste involve various types of chemical substances.
According to the American Chemical Society, seeing, hearing, touching, and tasting involves complex series of chemical reactions and interactions in your body.
Chemistry does not only seek to decode the characteristics of matter (such as mass and constituents of a compound) but also why and how matter undergoes specific changes under certain conditions. For example, why some liquids freeze when left in extremely cold environments, why some materials change color and dimensions when exposed to too much sunlight, or why elements react with other elements to form different chemical compounds.
In simple terms, chemistry can help us understand the make-up of our universe.
If you think chemistry is for professionals, academics, or some nerds in their white lab coats and big round glasses, it is important to note that it is so much more than that. Some of those nerds have changed our lives in more ways than we probably realize.
Below, we have mentioned the most famous chemists whose contributions have revolutionized the world.
13. Mario Molina (1943 – 2020)
Known for: Discovering that chlorofluorocarbons could destroy Earth’s ozone layer
Highest honors: Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1995), Presidential Medal of Freedom (2013)
Mario Molina played a pivotal role in the discovery of ozone depletion. In 1973, he joined the lab of Professor Frank Sherwood Rowland as a postdoctoral fellow. Here, he focused on “hot atom” chemistry, which involved studying the chemical properties of atoms that have very high translation energy because of radioactive processes.
They conducted numerous experiments on atmospheric pollutants and found that chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) gases are one of the major causes of ozone depletion. When these gases rise into the stratosphere, ultraviolet rays break them into their constituent elements: Chlorine, Fluorine, and Carbon.
Then, each chlorine atom destroys up to 100,000 ozone molecules before becoming inactive. They may remain in the atmosphere for up to 150 years, depleting the ozone layer.
Molina was jointly awarded the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, along with chemists Rowland and Paul Crutzen, for their work on the decomposition of the ozone layer. Their findings led to an international movement in the late 19th century to limit the widespread of CFC gases.
Because of such restrictions on the national scale, Ozone levels started stabilizing by the end of the 1990s and began to recover in the mid-2000s. According to NASA, the Ozone hole will reach pre-1980 levels by 2075.
12. Alessandro Volta (1745 – 1827)
Known for: Discovering methane and inventing voltaic pile
Highest honor: Copley Medal (1794)
Alessandro Volta is famous for his pioneering work in electricity and power. The SI unit of electric potential (Volt) is named in his honor. Although he was a professor of physics for most of his career, he did some extraordinary research in chemistry too.
In the late 1770s, he examined the chemistry of gases and discovered methane, the simplest hydrocarbon containing one carbon atom and four hydrogen atoms.
In 1799, Volta invented the first electrical battery (called voltaic pile) that could provide an electric current without interruption. With this battery, he proved that electricity could be produced chemically and disproved the then-popular theory that electricity was created solely by living beings.
His research inspired other scientists to perform similar tests, which ultimately led to the development of a new branch of physical chemistry, electrochemistry.
11. Harold Clayton Urey (1893 – 1981)
Known for: Discovering the heavy form of hydrogen called deuterium
Highest honors: Nobel Prize for Chemistry (1934), Priestley Medal (1973)
After receiving a Ph.D. in 1923, Harold Urey started working on the separation of isotopes. He wondered if hydrogen (the smallest atom) had different isotopes. To find the answer, he developed a technique for separating the rarer isotopes of hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and sulfur, making them readily available for lab research.
In 1932, he successfully extracted a hydrogen isotope by distilling liquid hydrogen. This isotope was called deuterium, and it was twice as heavy as usual hydrogen. Urey showed that water containing deuterium (heavy water) has different properties than regular water.
In the late 1950s, Urey became interested in space science. When Apollo brought samples from the Moon, he analyzed them at the Lunar Receiving Laboratory.
10. William Francis Giauque (1895 – 1982)
Image credit: University of California, Berkeley
Known for: Studying matters at temperatures close to absolute zero
Highest honors: Nobel Prize for Chemistry (1949), Elliott Cresson Medal (1937)
William Giauque spent almost all of his professional career at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1927, he came up with a new concept of achieving extremely low temperatures using the technique he invented, adiabatic demagnetization.
He performed numerous experiments, and by 1933, he successfully obtained a temperature of 0.25 Kelvin (-272.9° C). With these experiments, he also confirmed the third law of thermodynamics, which states that the entropy of a system approaches a constant value as the temperature approaches 0 Kelvin. For this work, Giauque was awarded the 1949 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.
Giauque’s research wasn’t restricted to near absolute zero temperatures or magnetic systems. At the initial stages of his career, he analyzed heat capacities and heats of transition of the halogen acids from low temperatures upward. He accurately detected anomalies in the heat capacity and identified random molecular orientations for the carbon monoxide molecule.
His findings have led to improvements in the production of substances like steel, glass, rubber, and gasoline. And his achievement will long endure in the textbooks.
9. Willard Frank Libby (1908 – 1880)
Known for: Developing radiocarbon dating
Highest honors: Nobel Prize for Chemistry (1960), Albert Einstein Award (1959)
Willard Libby was a specialist in radiochemistry. After World War II, he developed a method for dating organic compounds using carbon-14.
Carbon is the fundamental component of all living things on Earth. There are two isotopes: carbon-12 (stable) and carbon-14 (radioactive). Libby developed a technique that uses the content of carbon-14 to determine the age of fossils and archeological relics. For this work, he won the 1960 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
Libby also discovered that tritium (hydrogen-3, a rare and radioactive isotope of hydrogen) could be used in the same manner for dating water. This method is now widely used to determine the age of the wine.
8. Dmitri Mendeleev (1834 – 1907)
Known for: Developing the periodic table of chemical elements
Highest honors: Davy Medal (1882) and Faraday Lectureship Prize (1889)
While scientists began discovering elements in the early 1700s, there wasn’t a common lexicon to represent different substances. By 1863, there were 56 known elements with one element being identified every year.
In 1869, the chemist Dmitri Mendeleev made a formal presentation to the Russian Chemical Society, describing elements based on their atomic weight and valence. In simple terms, he presented a tabular diagram of known elements, which later became known as the periodic table.
“I saw in a dream a table where all elements fell into place as required. Awakening, I immediately wrote it down on a piece of paper, only in one place did a correction later seem necessary”. — Dmitri Mendeleev
What made Mendeleev’s chart unique was the way he allotted spaces for elements that were yet to be discovered. He already predicted the atomic masses and chemical characteristics of those missing pieces.
7. Jöns Jacob Berzelius (1779 -1848)
Known for: Finding atomic weights of elements and developing classical analytical techniques
Highest honor: Copley medal (1836)
Jöns Jacob Berzelius was a strict empiricist and methodical experimenter who performed pioneering research in electrochemistry. He created the law of constant proportions, which states that elements in inorganic compounds are bound together in specific proportions by weight.
In 1819, he reported the atomic weights of 45 elements (only 49 elements were known at that time). He is also credited for discovering elements silicon, titanium, selenium, thorium, cerium, and zirconium.
Berzelius started his career as a physician, but his enduring contributions were in the fields of chemical bonding, electrochemistry, and stoichiometry. He developed advanced techniques of chemical analysis and studied allotropy, isomerism, and catalysis — phenomena that owe their names to him.
Berzelius was the first chemist to distinguish between organic and inorganic compounds. He also explained the electrochemical dualism of organic compounds, naturally occurring minerals, and uncommon inorganic compounds, including the chlorides of sulfur.
According to Berzelius, all chemicals, whether natural or synthesized, could be specified qualitatively by identifying their electrically opposing constituents (basic and acidic, or electropositive and electronegative).
Berzelius introduced filter paper and rubber tubing into the lab for analytical chemistry. He didn’t spend much time in the lab. Instead, most of his time was spent discrediting new theories and ideas.
6. Ernest Rutherford (1871 – 1937)
Known for: Discovering alpha and beta radioactivity
Highest honors: Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1908), Faraday Lectureship Prize (1936)
The early work of Ernest Rutherford was concerned with the magnetic properties of iron under high-frequency oscillations. He was the first scientist to design highly effective experiments with high-frequency, alternating currents. In 1896, he wrote a paper describing a time-apparatus that can measure time intervals of a hundred-thousandth of a second.
A few years later, he started working at the Cavendish Laboratory under ProfessorJoseph John Thomson, where he invented an instrument (using small bundles of magnetized iron wire) for detecting electromagnetic waves.
His later research focused on how ions behave in gasses that had been treated with X-rays. He also studied how the mobility of ions changes with varying electric fields.
In the late 19th century, he discovered the concept of radioactive half-life and reported the existence of alpha and beta rays in uranium radiation, describing some of their characteristics. For this work, he won the 1908 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
In 1911, Rutherford theorized that atoms contain a charge concentrated in a tiny nucleus. However, he couldn’t prove whether the charge was positive or negative.
In 1917, he conducted experiments to induce artificial nuclear reactions by bombarding nitrogen nuclei with alpha particles. In those reactions, he discovered the emission of a subatomic particle, proton.
While working with Niels Bohr in 1921, Rutherford postulated that atoms contain neutrons. These neutrons produce an attractive nuclear force, which compensates for the protons’ repelling effect. This theory was proved in 1932 by Rutherford’s associate James Chadwick.
5. Rosalind Franklin (1920 – 1958)
Known for: Discovering the double helix structure of DNA and fine structure of coal and graphite
Alma mater: University of Cambridge (Ph.D.)
Born into a wealthy and influential British Jewish family, Rosalind Franklin displayed exceptional intelligence from early childhood. She wanted to be a scientist at a young age.
In 1945, she earned a Ph.D. for “the physical chemistry of solid organic colloids with special reference to coal.” A year later, she was appointed at the Central State Laboratory for Chemical Services in Paris, where she learned crystallography and X-ray diffraction techniques.
Franklin applied those techniques to gain key insights into DNA and RNA structure. She also applied them to coals and other carbonaceous compounds to learn what changes occur in the arrangement of atoms when these compounds are converted into graphite.
Franklin published numerous journals on this work, which eventually became a vital part of the mainstream of the chemistry and physics of carbon and coal. She also coined the terms graphitizing and non-graphitizing carbon — two categories of carbon formed by pyrolysis of organic materials.
While her contributions to coal and graphite were appreciated in her lifetime, her role in the discovery of the structure of DNA remained unrecognized during her life.
According to the molecular biologist James Watson, who proposed the double helix structure of the DNA molecule, Franklin would have ideally been awarded a Noble Prize in Chemistry. Some scientists refer to Franklin as the “dark lady of DNA”, the “forgotten heroine”, and the “wronged heroine”.
4. Alfred Nobel (1833 – 1896)
Known for: Inventing dynamite and leaving his fortune to the Nobel Prize institution
Highest honor: Nobel Monument
Since childhood, Alfred Nobel had primary interests in English literature, physics, and chemistry. At the age of 18, he went abroad for further training in chemical engineering. He worked in a private lab of Théophile-Jules Pelouze. There he came to know about a highly explosive liquid called nitroglycerine.
Nitroglycerine was created by blending glycerine with nitric and sulfuric acid. It was very dangerous for any kind of practical application. In 1863, Nobel started focusing on producing nitroglycerine as an explosive.
He experimented with various chemicals and eventually found that nitroglycerine and kieselguhr together form a unique paste that could be easily shaped into rods. It was safer and more convenient to handle.
In 1867, Nobel patented this mixture as “dynamite.” He also invented the blasting cap (detonator) that could be ignited by lighting a fuse.
He made notable contributions to explosive technologies (such as Gelignite and Ballistite) and various chemical inventions, including materials like artificial silk and synthetic rubber. By 1896, he held 355 patents.
When Alfred died, he bequeathed his fortune (31,225,000 Swedish kronor) to the Nobel Prize institution. The money was to be used for Nobel Prizes in Chemistry, Physics, Literature, Peace, and Physiology or Medicine. The Prizes are considered as an extension of Alfred NobeNobel’setime interests.
3. Dorothy Hodgkin (1910 – 1994)
Known for: Developing X-ray crystallography and determining the structure of insulin
Highest honor: Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1964) Lomonosov Gold Medal (1982)
Generous, humble, and hard-working throughout her 50-year long career, Dorothy Hodgkin spent decades advancing the technique of X-ray crystallography to determine the atomic and molecular structure of crystals.
While doing a Ph.D. at Newnham College, she became aware of X-ray crystallography techniques to determine the structure of proteins. She worked under the supervision of John Desmond Bernal. In 1937, she was awarded the Ph.D. for crystallographic investigation of steroid crystals. From there, decoding the structure of biologically important compounds became her life’s work.
In 1945, Hodgkin published the first 3D structure of a steroid, cholesteryl iodide. In the same year, she solved the structure of penicillin, showing (contrary to scientific belief at the time) that it consists of a β-lactam ring.
In 1948, Hodgkin studied vitamin B12 and realized that its structure could be determined by the X-ray crystallography technique. She spent years working on X-ray diffraction images, extensive calculations, and astute analysis.
By 1955, she successfully determined the complex structure of vitamin B12. For this work, Hodgkin was awarded the 1964 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
2. Linus Pauling
Known for: Describing the nature of the chemical bond
Highest honors: Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1954), National Medal of Science (1974)
Linus Pauling was, undoubtedly, one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century. He was a charismatic public speaker who was able to make the most complex theories interesting, even to those who knew nothing about advanced science.
In his late 20s, he started publishing scientific journals about the chemical bond. By the age of 28, he published five rules that describe crystal structures of ionic compounds. These rules concern
- The electrostatic bond strength
- Crystals having different cations
- The ratio of cation radius to anion radius
- the parsimony rule
- The sharing of polyhedron edges, faces, and corners
At the age of 37, Pauling completed his famous textbook Nature of the Chemical Bond and the Structure of Molecules and Crystals, for which he received the 1954 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. It has been considered chemistry’s most influential book of the 20th century. Within three decades, the book was cited more than 16,100 times.
Pauling also studied the intricate structures of biological molecules and described the vital role of alpha-helix and beta-sheet in protein secondary structure. His approach combined techniques and findings from quantum chemistry, molecular model, quantum chemistry, and X-ray crystallography.
In his entire career, Pauling more than 1,200 books and papers, of which approximately 840 dealt with scientific subjects.
Furthermore, Pauling was awarded the 1962 Noble Peace Prize for standing against all warfare as a means of solving international conflicts. He is the only person to have been awarded two unshared Nobel Prizes in different fields.
1. Marie Curie (1867 – 1934)
Marie Curie and her husband | Getty Images
Known for: Discovering Polonium and Radium by isolating radioactive isotopes
Highest honors: Nobel Prize in Physics (1903) and Chemistry (1911)
Marie Curie received a general education in local schools and some scientific coaching from her father. Her early experiments, together with her husband, Pierre Curie, were carried in poor lab arrangements and under difficult conditions. In addition to performing research, they had to teach students to earn a livelihood.
In the late 19th century, Marie Curie invented techniques for separating radium from radioactive residues in sufficient quantities. This allowed her to study the therapeutic properties of the element in detail.
Her work was mentioned in many scientific journals and she received numerous honorary science and law degrees, as well as honorary memberships of institutions all across the world.
In 1903, Marie Curie and her husband were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for developing the theory of “radioactivity,” a term she coined. In 1911, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering two radioactive elements: polonium and radium.
Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, and she is the only woman to win the Prize in two different fields. She didn’t patent her discovery and benefited little from the emerging business of developing radium.
During the First World War, Curie developed the technology for mobile X-ray units that could be used to diagnose injuries near the battlefront. These machines, known as Petits Curies, are similar to those used today in fluoroscopy machines, which allow doctors to analyze moving images in the body, such as the motion of swallowing or pumping action of the heart.
Overall, Marie Curie’s contribution to science had been immense. Besides the extraordinary research, she has greatly influenced subsequent generations of chemists and nuclear physicists.
Frequently Asked Questions
What do chemists do on a daily basis?
All activities of chemists can be grouped into five categories.
- Analyzing chemical and physical properties of substances
- Studying compounds to determine composition, structure, and reactions
- Creating or synthesizing new substances
- Developing models to test the predictive power of theories
- Evaluating lab safety procedures and ensuring compliance with standards
Who is the father of chemistry?
Antoine Lavoisier is considered the father of modern chemistry. He played a major role in building the metric system, wrote the first comprehensive list of elements, and reformed chemical nomenclature.
Lavoisier discovered (and named) oxygen and hydrogen and theorized the existence of silicon. He also described the role of oxygen in combustion and discovered that matter could change its shape but its mass always remains the same.
Who won the recent Nobel Prize in chemistry?
The 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry is shared by two chemists, Benjamin List and David MacMillan. They were awarded the Prize because, in 2000, they (independent of each other) developed asymmetric organocatalysis. Prior to this, scientists believed that there were only two kinds of catalysts available: metals and enzymes.
How much money do chemists make every year?
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary of a chemist is about $84,000. The median annual wage for materials scientists is nearly $100,000. However, these figures are for the United States overall; there may be significant differences based on geography.