Significant Milestones in Chemistry: A Timeline of Influential Chemists

Significant Milestones in Chemistry: A Timeline of Influential Chemists

Author: Vera KoesterORCID iD

Throughout history, countless chemists have made groundbreaking discoveries and contributed to our collective knowledge. In this article, we will take a journey through time and explore some of the most significant milestones in the field of chemistry. Starting from the early alchemists, we will examine how each of them pushed the boundaries of what is possible. By the end of this timeline, you will have a deeper appreciation for the contributions of these chemists and the impact they have had on the world around us and how chemistry evolved throughout the centuries.

Since we cannot list every outstanding chemist, we limit ourselves to those for whom we have already published an article in ChemistryViews.



Alchemy, an ancient branch of natural philosophy, studied substance properties and reactions since the 1st/2nd century. It was a proto-scientific tradition in China, India, the Muslim world, and Europe. Modern chemistry and pharmacology replaced it during the 17th and 18th centuries.




During the Renaissance and 17th century, the scientific method—emphasizing the importance of observation and experimentation in gaining knowledge about the world—was developed and refined, leading to the foundation of modern chemistry and other scientific disciplines. Discoveries of gases, improvements in alchemy, advancements in metal production, and developments in chemistry’s role in medicine were also made during this period.

1604 – 1670 Johann Rudolph Glauber
Discovered sodium sulfate, also known as Glauber’s salt
1623 – 1662 Blaise Pascal
Made important contributions to probability theory and the understanding of the equilibrium of fluids
1627 – 1691 Robert Boyle
Discovered Boyle’s law, which describes the relationship between pressure and volume of a gas
1673 – 1734 Johann Konrad Dippel
Alchemist, who was well-known for selling his animal oil as “Elixir vitae” and co-developed a process for the production of Prussian blue



In the 18th century, new gases such as hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen were discovered, and the phlogiston theory was widely accepted but later proven incorrect. New elements were discovered, and Antoine Lavoisier introduced a new system of chemical nomenclature. Additionally, chemical instrumentation such as the balance, calorimeter, and spectroscope were developed for analysis and measurement.

1716 – 1795 Antonio de Ulloa
Is credited with the first scientific description of platinum
1722 – 1765 Axel Fredrik Cronstedt
Swedish researcher discovered nickel and is considered a founder of modern mineralogy
1743 – 1794 Antoine Lavoisier
Disproved the phlogiston theory and he is often considered the father of modern chemistry
1748 – 1822 Claude Louis Berthollet
French chemist well-known for work on modern nomenclature in chemistry, equilibria, dyes, and bleaches
1760 – 1852 Johan Gadolin
Discovered the first rare-earth compounds
1763 – 1829 Nicolas-Louis Vauquelin
Discovered chromium and beryllium
1766 – 1844 John Dalton
Introduced modern atomic theory
1767 – 1845 Nicolas-Théodore de Saussure
One of the major pioneers in the study of photosynthesis
1767 – 1813 Anders Gustav Ekeberg
Discovered the transition metal tantalum
1786 – 1889 Michel Eugène Chevreul
Studied fatty acids and improved soap and candle production
1792 – 1841 Johan August Arfwedson
Discovered lithium
1799 – 1868 Christian Friedrich Schönbein
Discovered ozone and guncotton



In the 19th century, John Dalton proposed his atomic theory, which laid the foundation for understanding atoms and chemical reactions. Organic chemistry was born, with Friedrich Wöhler’s synthesis of urea challenging the theory of vitalism. Dmitri Mendeleev’s periodic table organized elements by their properties, while electrochemistry made progress with the discovery of electrolysis and batteries. Finally, thermodynamics developed as a branch of chemistry with contributions from Rudolf Clausius and James Clerk Maxwell.

1803 – 1873 Justus von Liebig
Major contributions to agricultural and biological chemistry, considered one of the principal founders of organic chemistry
1804 – 1869 Otto Linné Erdmann
Determined atomic weights
1805 – 1869 Thomas Graham
Formulated Graham’s law and is considered one of the founders of colloid chemistry
1813 – 1898 Henry Bessemer
Pioneered research in the field of surface tension and the measurement of surface films
1815 – 1902 Maxwell Simpson
Performed the first synthesis of succinic acid
1816 – 1856 Charles Frédéric Gerhardt
Developed the concept of homologous series
1817 – 1870 William Allen Miller
Was a pioneer of spectral analysis and astrochemistry
1818 – 1892 August Wilhelm von Hofmann
Made important contributions to organic chemistry
1818 – 1881 Henri Sainte-Claire Deville
Discovered toluene and nitrogen pentoxide
1818 – 1889 James Prescott Joule
Formulated Joule’s first and second laws and co-discovered the Joule–Thomson effect
1821 – 1895 Johann Josef Loschmidt
Bohemian-Austrian scientist who performed ground-breaking work in physical and general chemistry
1822 – 1895 Louis Pasteur
Invented pasteurization, which conserves food by killing pathogens
1822 – 1871 Adolph Strecker
Well-known for the Strecker amino acid synthesis
1825 – 1863 August Beer
German researcher well-known for his contributions to the Beer–Lambert–Bouguer law
1828 – 1914 Sir Joseph Wilson Swan
Was one of the inventors of the incandescent light bulb
1829 – 1935 Friedrich August Kekulé
Assigned the cyclic structure to benzene
1829 – 1921 William Odling
English chemist who contributed to the development of the periodic table and the concept of valence
1830 – 1895 Lothar Meyer
German chemist and physician developed one of the first periodic tables of chemical elements
1833 – 1896 Alfred Nobel
Invented dynamite and established the Nobel Prize in his will
1834 – 1916 Adolph Frank
Recognized the potential of potash for fertilizer production
1836 – 1918

Alexander Mitscherlich
Developed an early version of the sulfite process for the production of cellulose from wood

1837 – 1923 Johannes Diderik van der Waals
Dutch Nobel Laureate and theoretical physicist and thermodynamicist known for his pioneering work on the equation of state for gases and liquids
1838 – 1907 Sir William Henry Perkin
British chemist and entrepreneur, discoverer of the first synthetic organic dye and the Perkin reaction for the production of cinnamic acid and coumarin
1838 – 1920 Carl Alexander von Martius
Discovered Martius yellow, the first industrially used naphthalin-based dye
1839 – 1917 James Mason Crafts
Co-developed the Friedel-Crafts alkylation and acylation reactions, which can functionalize aromatic rings
1842 – 1911 Ellen Swallow Richards
Was the first woman admitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and an environmental chemist
1842 – 1919 Lord Rayleigh
Co-discovered argon
1845 – 1920 Wilhelm Pfeffer
Developed the Pfeffer cell, a device to measure osmotic pressure
1846 – 1919 Julia Lermontova
First Russian woman to receive a doctoral degree in chemistry
1847 – 1931 Wilhelm Haarmann
Co-discoverer of the first synthesis of vanillin
1848 – 1922 Philippe Barbier
French organic chemist known as a pioneer of organometallic chemistry
1852 – 1916 Sir William Ramsay
Discovered multiple noble gases
1904 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
1852 – 1919 Emil Fischer
Contributions to carbohydrate and purine research, and developed the “lock and key” model for enzyme-substrate interactions
1902 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
1854 – 1915 Paul Ehrlich
Made seminal contributions to immunology and developed treatments for syphilis and diphtheria
1908 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
1855 – 1923 Emanuel August Merck
Partner of Merck KGaA, grandson of the company’s founder, instrumental in growing the company’s workforce, chairman of predecessor of GDCh, preserved laboratory of Justus von Liebig, a friend of his grandfather
1856 – 1919 Mitsuru Kuhara
First President of the Tokyo Chemical Society, one of the earliest chemical societies
1857 – 1922 Giacomo Ciamician
Italian chemist and pioneer of photochemistry
1858 – 19?? Joji Sakurai
Was the first chemistry professor at Tokyo University and helped found the Japanese research institute RIKEN
1859 – 1921 Ludwig Knorr
German chemist known for the Knorr quinoline synthesis, the Knorr pyrrole synthesis, and the Paal–Knorr synthesis
1859 – 1927 Svante Arrhenius
Swedish Nobel Laureate known for work on the theory of electrolytic dissociation, activation energy, and the pioneering theory of global warming
1862 – 1935 Agnes Pockels
Pioneered research in the field of surface tension and the measurement of surface films
1863 – 1944 Leo Hendrik Baekeland
Invented bakelite, one of the first synthetic plastics
1864 – 1941 Walther Nernst
Is best known for the Nernst equation, which gives the potential of a half-cell in electrochemistry
1920 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
1865 – 1954 William M. Burton
Developed the first commercially successful thermal cracking method for producing gasoline
1865 – 1921 Emil Knoevenagel
Developed the Knoevenagel condensation, a modified aldol condensation
1866 – 1947 Moses Gomberg
Discovered the first stable free radical
1866 – 1926 Paul Immerwahr
Brother of Clara Immerwahr who provided the stimulus and money for the syntheses of the insecticide pyrethrum and artificial pepper
1866 – 1919 Alfred Werner
Developed the concept of the coordination number
1913 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
1866 – 1940 Samuel Eyde
Co-developed the Birkeland–Eyde process for the fixation of nitrogen
1866 – 1940 William Lash Miller
Was the leading proponent of Gibbs’ thermodynamics in North America
1867 – 1935 Erik Christian Clemmensen
Invented the Clemmensen reduction, which converts carbonyls to methylene groups
1867 – 1941 Daniel Vorländer
Was a liquid crystal pioneer
1868 – 1928

Theodore William Richards
Determined the exact atomic weights of many chemical elements
1914 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

1868 – 1943 Fritz Haber
Co-invented the Haber-Bosch process for the synthesis of ammonia
1918 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
1868 – 1939 Søren Sørensen
Developed the concept of the pH scale
1869 – 1910 Richard Abegg
Pioneered valence theory
1870 – 1915 Clara Immerwahr
Was the first woman to be awarded a Ph.D. in chemistry in Germany and an activist for women’s rights
1870 – 1939 Sir William Jackson Pope
British chemist and crystallographer known for his work on optically active N, S, Se, or Sn compounds
1871 – 1935 Victor Grignard
French chemist known for Grignard reagents and the C–C bond-forming Grignard reaction
1912 Nobel Prize for Chemistry
1872 – 1935 Lafayette B. Mendel
American biochemist known for the co-discovery of vitamin A
1872 – 1938 Georges Urbain
French chemist discovered the element lutetium
1872 – 1952 Mary Engle Pennington
American bacteriological chemist who was a pioneer in food safety and refrigeration
1873 – 1964 Hans von Euler-Chelpin
Explained the enzymatic fermentation of sugar
1929 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
1874 – 1940 Carl Bosch
Co-invented the Haber-Bosch process for the synthesis of ammonia
1878 – 1968 Lise Meitner
Made important contributions to nuclear chemistry
1879 – 1960

Max von Laue
Discovered the diffraction of X-rays by crystals
1914 Nobel Prize in Physics

1879 – 1967 Elmer McCollum
Discovered the first vitamins
1879 – 1968 Otto Hahn
Discovered nuclear fission
1944 Nobel Prize for Chemistry
1880 – 1934 Friedrich Heinrich August Klatte
Received the first patent for polyvinyl chloride (PVC)
1881 – 1965 Hermann Staudinger
Is considered the “father of polymer chemistry” and discovered the first ketene
1953 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
1884 – 1949 Friedrich Bergius
Developed the Bergius process for producing synthetic fuel from coal
1931 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
1884 – 1966 Peter Debye
Performed important investigations on dipole moments and on X-ray diffraction
1936 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
1892 – 1987

Louis de Broglie
Proposed the theory of the wave-particle duality of matter
1929 Nobel Prize in Physics

1893 – 1970 Sir Christopher Kelk Ingold
Performed pioneering work on reaction mechanisms and coined terms such as nucleophilic and electrophilic
1893 – 1981 Harold Urey
Co-discovered deuterium
1893 – 1989 Lili Wachenheim
First female chemist to do research in a BASF laboratory
1894 – 1993 Izaak Kolthoff
Pioneered modern analytical chemistry
1895 – 1968 Hertha Sponer
Co-developed the Birge–Sponer method
1895 – 1982 William Giauque
Worked on thermodynamics and cryogenics
1949 Nobel Prize for Chemistry
1895 – 1970 Margaret D. Foster
Pioneered research in the field of surface tension and the measurement of surface films
1896 – 1957 Gerty Cori
Known for the co-discovery of the Cori cycle and the Cori ester
1947 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
1897 – 1971 Robert Corey
American biochemist known for his role in discovery of the α-helix and the β-sheet
1897 – 1987 Georg Wittig
Well-known for the Wittig reaction and Wittig rearrangements
1979 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
1897 – 1996

Tadeusz Reichstein
Polish-Swiss chemist developed a method for vitamin C synthesis and isolated cortisone
1950 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

1899 – 1975

Percy Lavon Julian
An African American organic chemist who overcame every barrier to become a pioneer in his field, remarkable in a scientific context and on a human level



In the 20th century, significant advancements were made in various areas of chemistry, including the development of quantum mechanics, polymer chemistry, nuclear chemistry, materials science, green chemistry, medicinal chemistry, and computational chemistry. These advancements have led to the development of new technologies, materials, and medicines, as well as a focus on sustainability and minimizing the impact of chemical processes on the environment.



First Nobel Prizes
Jacobus Henricus van ‘t Hoff = Chemistry
Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen = Physics
Emil von Behring, the Founder of Serum Therapy = Physiology or Medicine

1900 – 1967 Richard Kuhn
Carried out groundbreaking work on the structures of vitamins
1938 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
1901 – 1994 Linus Pauling
Elucidated the quantum mechanical nature of the chemical bond
1954 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1962 Nobel Peace Prize
1902 – 1996 Tetsuo Nozoe
Worked on the isolation of natural products and collected over 4000 signatures from famous scientists
1902 – 1971 Arne Tiselius
Developed electrophoresis
1948 Nobel Prize for Chemistry
1903 – 1979 Giulio Natta
Italian Nobel Laureate well-known for his work on Ziegler–Natta catalysts for polymer synthesis
1963 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
1906 – 2008 Albert Hofmann
Discovered the psychopharmacological effects of LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide)
1906 – 1995 Allene Jeanes
American chemist known for the development of large-scale dextran production and xanthan gum
1910 – 2002

Archer John Porter Martin
Invented partition chromatography together with Richard Synge
1952 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

1910 – 1994 Dorothy Hodgkin
Pioneered the study of biomolecules by X-ray crystallography
1964 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
1911 – 1976 Feodor Felix Konrad Lynen
Discovered critical details of the cholesterol and fatty acid metabolism
1964 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
1912 – 2004 Herbert C. Brown
Introduced hydroborations to organic chemistry and co-discovered sodium borohydride
1979 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
1912 – 1999 Glenn T. Seaborg
Co-discovered ten transuranium elements
1951 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
1912 – 1971 Charles D. Coryell
American chemist co-discovered promethium
1913 – 1989 Kurt Zosel
Patented the use of supercritical fluid extraction in the decaffeination of coffee
1913 – 2009 Mildred Cohn
Made important contributions to the understanding of enzymatic reactions
1914 – 1994 Richard Laurence Millington Synge
Co-developed partition chromatography
1952 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
1915 – 2010 Albert Ghiorso
Co-discovered 12 chemical elements
1915 – 2005 Henry Taube
Made seminal contributions to the understanding of electron exchange and ligand exchange in complexes
1916 – 1995 Christian B. Anfinsen
Discovered important aspects of protein folding
1972 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
1916 – 1977 Pehr Victor Edman
Invented a breakthrough method for sequencing proteins
1916 – 2004
Francis Crick
Co-discovered the double helix structure of DNA
1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
1917 – 1979 Robert Burns Woodward
Co-discovered the Woodward-Hoffmann rules, which predict the barrier heights of pericyclic reactions
1965 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
1917 – 2011 Herbert A. Hauptman
Laid the mathematical groundwork for solving crystal structures
1985 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
1917 – 2016 Ines Mandl
Discovered collagenase
1917 – 2013 Sir John Cornforth
Explained the biosynthesis of cholesterol
1975 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
1917 – 1935 Rodney R. Porter
Discovered the structure of antibodies
1972 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
1917 – 2002
Martin Kamen
Confirmed the existence of the carbon isotope 14C, which is used in radiocarbon dating
1917 – 2012 William Knowles
Asymmetric synthesis, especially hydrogenation reactions
2001 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
1917 – 2006 Asima Chatterjee
One of India’s most famous female chemists
1917 – 1997 John Kendrew
Discovered the structure of myoglobin
1962 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
1918 – 2013 Jerome Karle
Co-developed the theoretical foundation for the determination of crystal structures by X-ray diffraction
1985 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
1918 – 1998

Sir Derek Barton
Pioneered the conformational analysis of organic molecules
1969 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

1918 – 2007 Ernst Otto Fischer
Co-discovered the structure of ferrocene
1973 Nobel Prize for Chemistry
1918 – 2013 Frederick Sanger
Pioneered DNA sequencing technique,
1958 and 1980 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
1919 – 2005 Larned B. Asprey
Pioneered actinide and fluoride chemistry
1919 – 2001 Donald J. Cram
Pioneered host–guest chemistry
1987 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
1920 – 2002 George Porter
Co-developed flash photolysis
1967 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
1921 – 2017 Robert G. Parr
American theoretical chemist co-authored one of the most highly cited chemistry papers of all time
1921 – 2017 Isabella Karle
U.S. chemist known for her work on X-ray crystallography and the Manhattan Project
1923 – 2015 Carl Djerassi
Best known for his work on the contraceptive pills; also author of several literary works dealing with the ethics and human aspects of modern scientific research

1926 – 2016 Klaus Biemann
Father of organic mass spectrometry, pioneered its use for the analysis of protein structures

1927 – 2019 Manfred Eigen
Pioneered the so-called relaxation methods, which make it possible to determine reaction rates in the micro- and nanosecond range
1967 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
1927 – 2017 George A. Olah
Generation and reactivity of carbocations
1994 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
1928 – 2018 Osamu Shimomura
Discovered and developed the green fluorescent protein (GFP) with Martin Chalfie and Roger Tsien
2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
1929 – 2011 Rudolf Mössbauer
Discovery of recoilless nuclear resonance fluorescence, known as the Mössbauer effect, which is the basis for Mössbauer spectroscopy
1961 Nobel Prize in Physics
1931 – 2015 Richard F. Heck
The eponymous Heck reaction allows the formation of carbon-carbon bonds, and is one of the most widely used catalytic reactions in organic synthesis
2010 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
1933 – 2021 Richard Ernst
Developed two-dimensional NMR and several novel pulse techniques
1991 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
1933 – 2021 Paul J. Crutzen
Best known for his work on ozone depletion in the stratosphere
1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
1935 – 2021 Ei-ichi Negishi
Best known for the Negishi coupling, a transition-metal-catalyzed reaction of organic halides or triflates with organozinc compounds
2010 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
1937 Roald Hoffmann
Co-discovered the Woodward-Hoffmann rules, which predict the barrier heights of pericyclic reactions
1981 Nobelpreis für Chemie
1937 Avram Hershko
Known for his contributions to the discovery of the ubiquitin system, a cellular regulatory system that controls protein degradation in cells
2004 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
1938 – 2019 Margarita Salas
Biochemist and molecular geneticist best known for her studies on DNA, especially the discovery and characterization of Φ29 phage DNA polymerase
1938 Ryoji Noyori
Developed chirally catalyzed hydrogenation reactions using ruthenium–BINAP complexes
2001 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
1939 Jean-Marie Lehn
Made important contributions to the inception of supramolecular chemistry
1987 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
1939 Ada E. Yonath
Pioneering work on the structure of ribosomes
2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
1939 – 2016 Sir Harold Walter Kroto
Discovered fullerenes
1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
1941 Dan Shechtman
Discovery of quasicrystals, which are ordered but non-repeating structures in solids
2011 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
1942 – 2021 Robert H. Grubbs
Work on olefin metathesis, i.e., reactions in which C=C bonds are broken and reformed to connect alkene fragments in new ways
2005 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
1946 – 2016 Ahmed H. Zewail
Pioneered the use of femtosecond spectroscopy
1999 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
1952 – 2016 Roger Tsien
Co-Discovery and development of the green fluorescent protein (GFP)
2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

In the first two decades of the 21st century, there have been significant achievements in chemistry, including the study of nanotechnology, chemical biology, renewable energy, advanced materials, climate change, and the use of artificial intelligence to design new materials and predict molecule properties.



Science Fiction

The future of chemistry is bright, with endless possibilities for discovery and innovation. As new technologies emerge and new challenges arise, chemists will continue to play a critical role in shaping the world around us. And science fiction fans already know some of the things that will be developed 😉

2030 – 2267 Zefram Cochrane
Invents the fictional faster-than-light “warp drive” in the Star Trek universe

Also of Interest

Guess the Chemist

Quiz/Game: Guess the Chemist

Can you guess the famous scientist from the description?




Update (March 8, 2023)
The year of Michel Eugène Chevreul’s death was incorrectly given as 1989 instead of 1889. This error has been corrected.

Update (March 22, 2023)
John Kendrew was born in 1917, not 1862 as previously stated in the article.




  1. Miklos Simonyi

    Accept my congratulations for this remarkable illustration of remarkable chemists.
    My minor comment: there are indications that the idea of cyclic structure to benzene (Bull. Sor. Chim. Paris, 3, 98-110, 1865) originated from a book by Loschmidt (Chemische Studien, 1961).


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