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How Fertilizer and Science Education Are Tied Together by Justus Liebig

Justus Liebig (1803 – 1873) was a German chemist that not only did groundbreaking work in organic chemistry and biological chemistry, he also transformed chemistry education and universities to be more inclusive of a variety of topics .

The Man: Justus Liebig

Justus von Liebig was born in 1803 in the south-central of Germany in a modest city of Darmstadt. While Darmstadt is now called the City of Science and is home to many universities and science research centers, it used to be the secondary resident to the Holy Roman Emperor Ludwig the Bavarian in 1330. This prestigious beginnings gives the area a good start towards being stocked for merchants, industry, and all the advancements that come with it .

In the Industrial Age in which Liebig would have grown up, the Darmstadt area was growing steadily, but the technical schools had yet to be established. The first polytechnical school, later TU Darmstadt wasn’t even established until 1877, after Liebig has passed through life.

When Liebig was a teen, the only kind of chemist available for teaching purposes was either a chemist or a druggist. Liebig’s parents sent him to University of Bonn to study under Karl Wilhelm Kastner, a professional pharmacist and chemistry teacher. Kastner was one of the few professional chemists in Germany at the time .

As an adult, Liebig went from merely being a professor at the University of Giessen where he started his professional journey to transforming the entire field of chemistry, chemistry education, and the world of agriculture.

Justus Liebig the Scientist and Businessman

Despite his brilliance and enthusiasm, Liebig didn’t have the easiest of times as a professor. His challenge is a tale as old as time. The staff that was already there strongly objected to Liebig and his thoughts on how to teach chemistry. They believed it should all be taught by lectures. Liebig wanted to bring practical labs into the class.

He won over his detractors by sheer force of will and example. A small, unused room in the back of a police station was turned into a lab. Liebig borrowed the money to set up the lab as the university wouldn’t help bear the cost. It took Liebig 10 years to pay back the costs .

However, the tiny cramped lab, trial by fire methods of Liebig as an entrance exam to test curiosity and fortitude, and auto-didactic, learn by experimentation method of teaching attracted and created the next generation of brilliant scientists.

The influx of brilliant minds to Giessen University gave Liebig the leverage he needed to get the university to pay for and build a bigger, better, state of the art (for that time period) lab.

How Justus Liebig Transformed Chemistry Education

Liebig's teaching laboratory
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The lecture area of Liebig’s small world was unconventional, at best. The lecture area was so small the students used the Liebig’s desk for their inkwell, and on hot days students in the back slipped out the windows for a drink at nearby establishments.

Unconventionality didn’t stop at the physical location. Liebig’s lectures quickly became famous for how hard to understand chemistry were made clear along with his enthusiastic demonstrations where he was renouned to pick up the wrong things demos would subsequently fail.

In the first years of the lab, Liebig taught everything. After a few years, paid assistants would teach skills while Liebig would work with more advanced students in research. The students used a wall of chemicals available to them and followed instructions in Rose’s Introduction to Qualitative Chemical Analysis – a textbook that was both confusing and difficult to understand. The students worked by learning from errors as they attempted to do the experiments from this book .

They often worked through the textbook in a few months because they worked 15 hours a day. The student got out of this skills of qualitative analysis, knowledge of chemicals, and confidence. After this the students had to learn to prepare pure chemicals from sources, such as citric acid from fruit, and in good quantity and quality. The best test of skill was – and still is – for a researcher to get a good yield of high quality.

Learn like Liebig's Students
Liebig’s students learnt via experience and applying their experience to the next thing they encountered. Recording these ideas in a journal is key. Our journal is more than blank pages. It has prompts to start your journey deeper into science.

If you are already part of the community, you can find this resource in the resource library!

You’ll get a mini journal with prompts, access to the full resource library, and a community of supportive folks.

Liebig encouraged his students to find out all they could about the chemicals for science itself while he worked on the more applied applications of the chemicals. Progress in the applied sciences depends on good training in the pure sciences, so this was a mutual adventure for both students and master chemist.

It only took two years for the reputation of Liebig’s lab to travel around the world. In 1835 he was able to get that bigger lab . while his research in agriculture lead to the discovery that plants use carbon, hydrogen, and water from the atmosphere and nitrogen must be uptaken from the soil. He also discovered that beyond nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are needed for healthy plant growth and are limited .

These discoveries led to Liebig getting into creating the fertilizer industry, which saved a many, many lives after the Year Without Summer, the year after Mt. Tambora roared to life and erupted, sending ash and debris into the atmosphere effecting climate all over the earth for a year.

Liebig also had a big heart. He saw hunger running rampant in 1816 He saved a friend’s life, but also developed a manufacturing process to make meat extract and founded the Oxo company . But, hear the touching story from Ana Zeller as she retells the tale.

National Agricultural Hall of Fame. (n.d.). Justus von Liebig [Museum]. Retrieved December 2, 2022, from
A. W. Hofmann. (1876). The Life-Work of Liebig. Macmillian and Co.
Louis I. Kuslan, & A. Harris Stone. (1969). Liebig The Master Chemist. Prentice-Hall Inc.
Alexander Crum Brown. (2022, November 18). Justus Liebig, German chemist (1803-73). Encylopedia 1902.

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