Friedrich Wilhelm Ostwald
b. September 2, 1853, Riga, Latvia, Russian Empire
d. April 4, 1932, Großbothen (Sachsen) near Leipzig, Germany

Friedrich Wilhelm Ostwald was Russian-German chemist who is considered one of the principle founders of physical chemistry. He almost single-handedly organized physical chemistry into a nearly independent branch of chemistry. Nobel Laureate (1909) in Chemistry in recognition of his work on catalysis and for his investigations into the fundamental principles governing chemical equilibria and rates of reaction, best known to electrochemists for the theory of electrolyte solutions. 

Wilhelm Ostwald was born on September 2, 1853, in Riga, Latvia, as the son of master-cooper Gottfried Wilhelm Ostwald and Elisabith Leuckel.

Wilhelm Ostwald

Old building of Riga
Polytechnical Institute
(now - main building of
the University of Latvia)
(old design, 1869)
Wilhelm Ostwald was educated at the "Real gymnasium" in Riga and became interested in chemistry at an early age; as an eleven year old he made his own fireworks. In 1872 he was admitted to Dorpat University (now Tartu State University, Tartu, Estonia) to read chemistry. After taking his final examinations three years later, he obtained the post of assistant at the Physics Institute under Professor Arthur von Oettingen, and subsequently took a similar position in the Chemistry Laboratory under Carl Schmidt. Ostwald himself declared that he was most indebted to these two teachers for his scientific training. In 1877 he was admitted as unpaid academic lecturer at Dorpat University, and this was followed (1881) by the appointment of full time Professor of Chemistry at the Polytechnicum in Riga.


Institute of Physical Chemistry,
Leipzig University (1901)
Six years later he accepted an invitation as Professor of Physical Chemistry at Leipzig University. Among his later famous pupils are Arrhenius (Nobel Prize 1903), Van't Hoff (Nobel Prize 1901), Nernst (Nobel Prize 1920), Tammann and Wislicenus. Ostwald remained in Leipzig until he retired in 1906, with the short interruption for one term as first "Exchange Professor" at Harvard University, Cambridge (Mass.) in 1904-1905.


van't Hoff and Ostwald (right)

Arrhenius and Ostwald (left)


Ostwald started his experimental work in 1875, with an investigation on the law of mass action of water in relation to the problems of chemical affinity, with special emphasis on electrochemistry and chemical dynamics. In 1894 he gave the first modern definition of a catalyst and turned his attention to catalytic reactions. Ostwald is especially known for his contributions to the field of electrochemistry, including important studies of the electrical conductivity and electrolytic dissociation of organic acids. He developed a theory of solutions based on ionic dissociation and an analogy between gases and chemical solutions similar to Arrhenius's. He invented a viscometer that is still used for measuring the viscosity of solutions. Curiously enough, although he was one of the most eminent chemists of his time, he did not accept the  developement of athomic theory until 1906.


Ostwald also greatly contributed to chemical industry. His process for the conversion of ammonia to nitric acid, patented in 1902, became of great industrial importance. In this process, ammonia mixed with air is heated and led over a catalyst (platinum). It reacts with oxygen to form nitric oxide, which is then oxidized to nitrogen dioxide; this in turn reacts with water to form nitric acid. This method, known as the Ostwald process, was used by Germany during World War I for manufacturing explosives after the Allied blockade had cut off the regular German supply of nitrates, and it is still used.


In consequence of his pioneering work especially in the field of electrochemistry, which also led to the discovery of the law of dilution named after him, his activities as a writer and his gift for organization, Ostwald became one of the founders of classical physical chemistry. He published numerous textbooks, starting with the Lehrbuch der Allgemeinen Chemie (Textbook of general chemistry) in 1884. This was followed by Grundriss der Allgemeinen Chemie (Outline of general chemistry) in 1889 and Hand- und Hilfsbuch zur Ausführung physikalisch-chemischer Messungen (Handbook and manual for physicochemical measurements) in 1893. Numerous other scientific works on analytical chemistry, electrochemistry, inorganic chemistry followed. Ostwald also founded and edited the Zeitschrift für physikalische Chemie in 1887; Ostwald himself edited 100 volumes, up to 1922. In 1902 Ostwald founded Annalen der Naturphilosophie and edited 14 volumes up to 1921. He also founded Klassiker der exakten Wissenschaften in 1889, of which some 250 volumes have been published.

He was also in charge of the organization of the Department of Physical Chemistry at Leipzig University, and in 1894 he founded the "Deutsche Elektrochemische Gesellschaft" (German Electrochemical Society) which in 1902 expanded to become the "Deutsche Bunsen-Gesellschaft für angewandte physikalische Chemie" (German Bunsen-Society for Applied Physical Chemistry).

In 1909 Ostwald was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his work on catalysis, chemical equilibria and reaction velocities. He received honorary doctorates from several universities in Germany, Great Britain and the USA, and was made an honorary member of learned societies in Germany, Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, Russia, Great Britain and the USA. In 1899 he was made a "Geheimrat" by the King of Saxony.

Wilhelm Ostwald, chemist, philosopher and editor of a number of scientific and philosophical journals, was an illustrious personality in the European scientific community of the turn of the last century. His person unifies in a unique manner many aspects of the spirit of this epoch: scientific optimism, technological progress and concomitant differentiation of the sciences, positivism and Naturphilosophie, efforts to make science and scientific knowledge available to and understandable for the broad masses of the population in the course of a process of social and political emancipation, and a world society caught in the dilemma of nationalism and international cooperation. Ostwald's life can be regarded as a permanent ride on the ridge between these aspects: the professor of Chemistry influences and shapes the development of this science, he creates an original philosophical idea (Energetical Monism), he extends the impact of his ideas in the scientific community and public of his time by founding scientific journals and in the form of a tireless literary


After his retirement in 1906, Ostwald found a new sphere for his scientific and organizatorial talents. Besides continuing his studies and publication on philosophy, such as Der energetische Imperativ (The energetic imperative), Moderne Naturphilosophie (Modern natural philosophy), Die Pyramide der Wissenschaften (The pyramid of the sciences), he also took an active part in public life. He supported the middle-class pacifist movement, was interested in educational reforms and in monism. He believed that in view of his position he could decisively fight the Church's claim to power in the field of natural sciences and to spread a modern scientific ideology. This aim he pursued in his writings Monistische Sonntagspredigten (Monistic Sunday sermons) and Arbeiten zum Monismus (Works on monism). He wrote on the philosophy of science and, in the book Grosse Männer (1909; "Great Men"), he investigated the psychological causes of scientific productivity. He also published a three-volume autobiography (1926-1927).


Right up to the end of his life Ostwald studied colours and shapes, in the endeavour to find a scientific standardization for colours. His main works in this field are Die Farbenfibel (The coulour primer), Die Farbenlehre (Colour theory), Die Harmonie der Farben (Harmony of the colours). He also published a periodical Die Farbe (Colour).


Wolfgang Ostwald
Ostwald was married to Helene von Reyher in 1880. They had two daughters and three sons, one of whom, Dr. Karl Wilhelm Wolfgang (known in the scientific literature as Wo. Ostwald), was Lecturer in the University of Leipzig, and Editor of the Zeitschrift für Chemie und Industrie der Kolloide, the forerunner of the Kolloid - Zeitschrift. Also a famous scientist Wolfgang Ostwald (1883-1943), is generally regarded as the founder of colloid chemistry.

After an extremely active life, Ostwald died at his country home near Leipzig on April 3, 1932.

A medal in memory
of Ostwald
Ostwald called his house "Energy House" as a counter to Boltzmann, who had called his house "Entropy House". Ostwald's house, about 30 km from Leipzig, is being made into a museum; one of the main exhibits is the collection of coloured paints and dyes that he developed. He had a theory of colour that for a time was of interest to artists. Also in the house is a thermostatted beaker, heated by a Bunsen burner, and controlled to keep the fluid in the beaker to within one degree in temperature. His grave lies in the garden of the house.


A postal stamp memorizing Wilhelm Ostwald and his Nobel prize.

You could benefit reading the original Helmholtz' lectures available in the Internet:
Ostwald's dilution law:
Wilhelm Friedrich Ostwald, Zeitschrift für physikalische Chemie, 1888, 2, 36-37.

This text has been compiled from the biographies of Ostwald available in the Internet:
( 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 ). See also a very comprehensive biographic data (in German only).

(updated & corrected on June 28, 2003) 1