Pharmacy's Past: Trailblazing Pharmacist Carl Wilhelm Scheele


Carl Wilhelm Scheele (1742-1786) was a pharmaceutical chemist who discovered oxygen, chlorine, and manganese. Born in an area of Germany that was under Swedish jurisdiction, Scheele became a pharmacist’s apprentice in Gothenburg, Sweden at the age of 15.

During his apprenticeship, he became very interested in chemistry and spent much time reading about and experimenting with chemicals available in the pharmacy. Several years later, he moved to Malmo, Sweden, to work at a pharmacy. During this time, he began working with scientists at Lund University.

Scheele moved several times to work in different pharmacies with various scientists. He settled in a small town calling Koping, to become an apothecary with his own business. Scheele studied at the Royal Swedish Academy of Science.

He was known for his outstanding analytical skills to study gases, despite the lack of equipment. He did not have a proper oven for generating heat and analyzing minerals. Scheele also used simple instruments that were borrowed or improvised.

Scheele first contributed to the discovery of tartaric acid, later discovering chlorine, and barium oxide. He worked with black magnesia and manganese but was unable to isolate the manganese.

Working in all fields of chemistry, Scheele studied mineral acids (arsenic acid, molybdic acid, and tungstic acid). He distinguished molybdenite and graphite, worked on phosphorous (and its compounds), studied the effect of light on silver salts, and determined properties of hydrofluoric acid and its salts.

Scheele also studied/isolated for the first time many organic acids, some of which included lactic, citric, and malic, as well as other organic substances such as casein, aldehyde, and glycerol.

Scheele is most famous for his role in the discovery of oxygen, which he made independently, but at the same time as scientist Joseph Priestley. Scheele used his own experiments to prove the prevailing phlogiston theory, discovering chlorine and oxygen in this manner.

Scheele had worked with a fellow scientist named Torbern Bergman for many years. During this time, Scheele frequently consulted Bergman and did not take regular lab notes. Because of this, Bergman (and many other chemists) profited heavily from Scheele’s work of 15,000-20,000 experiments.

Scheele’s early death in 1786 was likely due to damage from frequent experiments with cyanide and arsenic without proper ventilation. While on his deathbed, Scheele married his housekeeper and transferred the pharmacy and other assets to her.

Reference Carl Wilhelm Scheele . Accessed March 25, 2019.


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