smrize logo

Want to extract relevant stories from a book? - Drop us a line at

Book Summary: Elemental

Author: Tim James

Substory: Unluckiest Chemist

In order to avoid confusion and settle debates we tend to talk about the first person to isolate an element rather than discover it. Credit goes to the first person who manages to hold a pure sample of an element and recognize it as such. Which brings us to the Swedish chemist Carl Scheele.

In 1772, Scheele successfully made a brown powder, which he named baryte from the Greek barys, meaning heavy. He knew there was an element hidden inside (barium) but it was Humphry Davy who isolated it and got the glory.

In 1774, Scheele discovered the gas chlorine (from the Greek chloros, meaning green) but didn’t realize it was an element. It was again Humphry Davy who made this link in 1808, thus getting the credit.

That same year, Scheele discovered calx of pyrolusite but failed to isolate the elemental manganese inside, achieved a few months later by Johan Gahn.

Then it happened again in 1778 when Scheele identified molybdenum, before it was isolated by Peter Hjelm. And then again in 1781 when he deduced the existence of tungsten but failed to isolate it before Fausto Elhuyar, who got the credit.

Scheele even discovered oxygen in 1771—three years before Priestley—but his manuscript was delayed at the printers and, by the time it was published, Priestley had got his results out.

To commemorate his many contributions to chemistry, the mineral Scheelite was named after him … until it was officially renamed calcium tungstate and Scheele was once again nudged out of the history books. If there is a god of chemistry, he apparently hates Carl Scheele.