Historical Review of Geochemistry

The term Geochemistry was first introduced by a chemist of Swiss-German origin, named Christian Friedrich Schoenbein sometime is the year 1938. He produced a paper where he emphasized the importance for a field of study which is not exactly Geology and also something that has a potential to determine the formation of our planet earth along with all its inorganic elements. Even though the field was seeing active contribution soon after his work, but it was still sometime before it was finally accepted by the scientific community because there arose a conflict between the geologists and the chemists who couldn’t decide who would become the dominant partner for this newly formed field of study. Hence, there was little collaboration from both chemists and geologists, which is why this field of Geochemistry remained unrecognized and didn’t see much expansion for quite some time.

A chief Chemist of US Geological survey who served from 1884-1925 and was known as Frank Wigglesworth Clarke, was primarily one of the major contributor to this new field of science known as “Geochemistry” back in those days. He published a lot of data showing his analysis of various rock forms found in the earth’s crust. His chemical analysis included the detailed computation of the averages of each common rock type and also the distribution and mutual abundance of various minor and major elements in them.

The honour of being the father of modern Geochemistry goes to a Swiss born scientist named Victor Goldschmidt, who spend his life working mostly in Norway and Germany. In the twentieth century, through a series of highly acclaimed publications in German named Geochemische Verteilungsgesetze der Elemente (Geochemical Laws of the Distribution of Elements] which translates to “Geochemical Laws of the distribution of elements” , Goldschmidt gave the most practical definition of Geochemistry which gave geochemistry strong foundation as a disciple of science. His work involves major contributions in understanding atomic substitution in crystal lattices, ionic size and their coordination. Basically, after Goldschmidt Geochemistry came to be known as that field of science which deals with it:
1. abundance of elements in the crystal, rocks and minerals;
2. distribution of elements;
3. laws governing the distribution and abundance of elements in the crystal, rocks and minerals.

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The differences of the composition of the terrestrial rocks and that of the meteorites were studied as early as 1850’s. Oliver Farrington hypothesised that despite certain little differences, the composition between the two should still be the same. This had been marked as the beginning of science of Cosmochemistry and has contributed handsomely so far in determining the mystery behind earth’s formation as well as our solar system.

The overall contribution of the Soviet geochemists in the field of Geochemistry is also remarkable especially during the early decades of the nineteenth century when the analytical techniques are known to have improved a lot. There had been several attempts to classify elements on the basis of their geochemical properties which gave rise to such terms as chalcophile, siderophile, hydrophile, lithophile, atmophile, thalassophile etc. which states the various geochemical affinity of different elements.

There had been enormous development made in geochemistry in different applied and academic disciplines of it over the last century or so. The revolution in analytical techniques has helped it immensely. The most important of all those analytic techniques is the couple inductively plasma mass spectrometry. The data available from these methods shows a high precision on all the components of earth such as sediments, rock, air, crystals, water, soil and minerals. In the same lines, monumental geochemistry based data are being received on the various inert gases.

At the boundary of the third millennium medical-biological sciences have achieved extraordinarily high level of technology development and research methods of organism functioning at its different levels and the role of chemical elements in these processes. Biogeochemistry as an integrated science dealing with element composition of living matter and its role in migration, transformation and concentration of elements and their compounds in biosphere, first developed by V.I. Vernadskiy and his followers in the 30’s of the last century, is a key scientific trend (Yermakov, 2003). This science is one of the basic disciplines in higher education along with ecology, geography, geology, biology, chemistry, medicine and other sciences (Bashkin, 2004). The intensive technogenic environmental transformation poses a problem of studying the regularities in accumulation and distribution of chemical elements in living matter at it different organization levels and in connection with its surrounding its geospheric shells based on generalization of available data and their addition with elements that have been poorly studied. On the practical level the results of solution have to be laid as a basis for medical-environmental monitoring defined at present as an important priority of national safety and sustainable development of Russia (Agadzhanyan et al, 2006). Evaluation of element composition evolution and its habitat is one of the basic tasks of biogeochemistry. Its solution is a fundamental for biogeochemistry development incorporating a plenty of various sciences. This manual is a generalization of scientific results of recent years and intended for the students and master-students as well as everybody who are interested in study of biogeochemical parameter changes of contemporary biosphere, element migration and questions of changes in geochemical parameters of geospheric shells with human health state on global and regional scale.

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History of concept development about biosphere geochemistry is closely connected with the name of Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadskiy who created the theory of biosphere and first states the problem of special studying the living matter playing a crucial role in redistribution of chemical elements in various environments with which it contacts. The ideas of studying living organisms’ activity from geological point of view appeared in V.I. Vernadskiy’s mind in his student’s years, when he took part in the field expeditions of his teacher – soil scientist V.V. Dokuchaev. Then they were developed in the years of his life in Ukraine (1916 – 1920) and in France (1922 – 1926). Beginning from 1921 Vladimir Ivanovich arranged the systematic research in biogeochemistry (Vernadskiy, 1921; 1922; 1926; 1930; 1939 and others). The works dealing with this question were continued by his disciples А.P. Vinogradov, V.V. Kovalskiy and others. By that time, according to А.P. Vinogradov’s achieve in the laboratory of BIOGEL GEOHI RAS, the investigations of element content in living organisms started to develop in some countries. Thus, as soon as the beginning of the 20-th century Italian and German scientists revealed the relative content amount of some rare earth elements (according to BIOGEL achieve: Schiaparelli, 1880; Yunk, 1926), bromine (according to BIOGEL achieve: Paderi, 1898, Yustus, 1907) and others. However, they were not of systematical nature. Fundamental research of living organisms’ role in concentration of chemical elements were presented in V.I. Vernadskiy’s book «Biosphere» (Vernadskiy, 1926), one of the most famous publications of the great Russian scientist translated into almost all languages of the world.
Would you like to read more about this topic? This book might interest you: Geochemistry.