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Perspectives on 150 years of progress and the periodic table

by Peter K. Dorhout, ACS immediate past president
December 12, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 48


Photo of Peter Dorhout.
Credit: Linda Wang/C&EN

This year is the International Year of the Periodic Table, and we’ve been celebrating the sesquicentennial of a remarkable achievement: a rule set for chemists. In 1869, Dmitri Mendeleev published his periodic law of the known chemical elements, which he used to accurately predict the properties of five elements that were yet to be discovered. At the time of his analysis, he was just under the age of 35 and considered a “younger chemist” by American Chemical Society standards. With Mendeleev’s revolutionary periodic laws, the world of chemistry suddenly became clearer.

Also in 1869, Friedrich Miescher discovered nucleic acids while working in Tübingen, Germany, and Joseph Lister was finalizing his theory on microorganisms that were responsible for transmitting diseases. Listerine antiseptic, developed by Joseph Lawrence to reduce postoperative infections, was named in honor of Joseph Lister’s seminal work and licensed to Jordan Lambert, who started Lambert Pharmaceutical. In 1869, our understanding of diseases and how to control them was beginning to form, and the world was becoming safer.

The year 1869 also witnessed other critical transformations that shaped the world. The Suez Canal opened, and the first transcontinental railroad in the US was completed; the world suddenly became smaller with these advances in transportation. One hundred years later, humans landed on the moon.

In 1869, the first professional baseball team was formed—the Cincinnati Red Stockings—but it would be nearly 80 years before an African American would be allowed to play regularly on the same field. The first college football game was played in 1869; not until 1972 did Title IX require support of both men’s and women’s collegiate sports.

Legislators passed the 15th Amendment to the US Constitution, which was sent to the states for ratification, and the territories of Utah and Wyoming gave women the right to vote, although it would be 50 years before the US granted women’s suffrage and nearly a century before all Americans could freely express this right. Nevertheless, in 1869, the world was attempting to become more inclusive.

If diversity strengthens our solutions, it will also strengthen our society.

In recent years, international interdisciplinary teams have come together to fill in the missing pieces of the periodic puzzle. Having completed the seventh row of the modern table, we can ask, What’s ahead in an ocean of unknown possibilities—an island of stability, perhaps? What would Mendeleev do? Even more exciting, what will future chemists do? How will we bring the scientists of the world together to address our current and future problems?

One hundred fifty years after Mendeleev proposed a systematic table of elements to aid in the discovery and understanding of these elements, we are challenged by a growing complexity of other issues. We acknowledge a limited supply of natural resources; how do we keep ourselves warm, fed, and protected from diseases that evolve at rates previously unimagined? Do the answers lie in vivo, in vitro, in silico, or incognito? I submit, with some literary license, that the answers lie in hominibus–within the human.

To include all humanity in our search for solutions is to include the richness of our individual experiences and perspectives and to introduce critical points of view into our hypotheses and our debates. Diversity is the key to improving the human condition and human survival. Chemists will have solutions but need to work with other scientists—physical, biological, social, and behavioral—to make those solutions stronger.

As a society, we have come a long way from 1869, but the journey has not been easy. Mendeleev’s publication of the periodic laws preceded by 7 years the first gathering of 35 chemists in New York to create a professional organization—ACS. Over the past 143 years, we have built a great organization of chemical professionals and students, and we need to continue evolving to improve ourselves and our discipline.

How will we, as leaders within ACS as well as in the field, invite others to our discovery spaces and our gathering places to ensure that we continue enriching and improving people’s lives? We need to be inclusive, not only of new people but also of new ideas that will challenge our traditions and take us out of our comfort zones. If diversity strengthens our solutions, it will also strengthen our society. How will you, current and future ACS members, help us navigate the undiscovered landscape of the next 150 years of chemistry? Share your ideas with me at

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.



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