Friday, May 01, 2009

Julia Lermontova

I visited Göttingen recently and spent a weekend there. Visiting Göttingen was a dream come true. After reading about it, for instance in “Brighter than a Thousand Suns”, I had a mental image of it which was clearer than that of places I have seen. But, as it often happens, when a dream does come true you feel that the dream was better. Is it the same phenomenon as the “The book was better”? After all the “the book” is not the book but the image you have of it (or its contents) in your mind! Chew on it. In any case, I was prepared for this and hence had a grand time.

Göttingen has memorials of many greats who lived there at some tome or the other. Benjamin Franklin and Goethe who spent just a month there. The very fact that so many great scientists lived there is the reason for the fascination with the place. I referred to my visit to Göttingen as a pilgrimage, almost sheepishly. After my return, browsing through the net for some missing information, I came across a site of a Japanese scientist who had called his visit to the place pilgrimage too. Ah, that is better. In any case, I posted the pictures of my visit to Göttingen and called the album Shree Kshetra Göttingen.

(As an aside, while talking to my sister about Wimbledon some time ago, I referred to it too as Shree Kshetra Wimbledon. Unfortunately I only passed through the Wimbledon Railway Station in 1985 but never made a proper “pilgrimage”. In a similar vein, I undertook a pilgrimage to Shree Kshetra Heidelberg once. Coincidentally, I passed the village where Boris Becker was born, one of the tennis greats who made SK Wimbledon his abode for a while, on my way to Heidelberg)

With that brief preamble/prologue/tangent/digression let me come to the main reason for starting this post. Julia Lermontova.

There is a plaque on a building commemorating the fact that she lived in that place when she was in Göttingen. Julia who? Lermontova who? Well that was my reaction too.

(Let me admit that this was my reaction to the name Lichtenberg too, which, in hindsight, is unpardonable for an electronics engineer with an interest in biographies of scientists)

But the name Lermontova (Spelt Lermontowa in German) did ring a bell, but, the wrong one. I remembered that there is a famous Russian called Lermontov. But who Lermontov was and what he did to earn his fame, I had no idea. Interestingly the only thing I remembered about him was his portrait - if I am not mistaken, in the magazine Soviet Land, but of course there is no way to confirm it. In any case, I learnt later that he was one of the greatest Romantic poets of Russia. Not unlike Galois, Lermontov died in a duel at the age of 27. This is a tragic thing. Not just the death, which definitely is tragic. The fact that in many cases the circumstances of the death of such people is the only thing we know about them. I can say now that that is all I know about Galois and
Lermontov. (To be frank, I know a little more about Galois and his mathematics, even though it is only “journalistic” knowledge.) One more such name is that of van Gogh and that he shot himself and died when 35.

I found that Julia Lermontova was indeed remarkable. So here are two links about her.

What a lot of text to put together just two links!

Here is a translation of the text of a commemorative plaque in the Archives of the city of Göttingen.


Julia Vsevolodovna Lermontova was born on 2. Januar 1847 (According to the Russian calendar in use then, on 21 December, 1846) in St. Petersburg and died on 16 December, 1919 in her ancestral country estate south of Moscow. Because of health problems and the circumstances of her private life she had to give up chemistry when she was 35.

Julia Lermontova is of outstanding importance in the perspective of the history of science in two ways. For one, she can be counted as the pioneer of womens education as she was not only the first one to get a doctorate in Chemistry, but also the first one to graduate according to all the formal requirements. For the other, through her work with the most important chemists of both Germany and Russia she brought together the scientific traditions of both countries and at the same time achieved importance through her own research work in the area of polymerisation.


I also found that Lermontova is mentioned quite often in the articles about her friend and long time companion, Sofia Kovalevskaya. Another remarkable woman!

Credits: The picture of Julia Lermontova and the text of the commemorative plaque are from this site of Dr. Cordula Tollmien, with her kind permission.

1 comment:

  1. You know I tend to remember places and people with the same kind of thought process written about in this post. Like some vague picture that I have seen somewhere, people associated with cities...etc., you know the Mnemonic method. And for that Google is the most helpful. If you can remember one thing, Google is god.

    A wonderful post with, wait what was that you said??, the other name for thesaurus....:)