French chemist and politician who carried out research into dyes and explosives, proving that hydrocarbons and other organic compounds can be synthesized from inorganic materials.
Berthelot was born in Paris, where he studied and became professor of organic chemistry. In 1870–71, during the siege of Paris in the Franco-Prussian War, he was consulted about the defence of the capital and supervised the manufacture of guns and explosives. Thereafter he took an increasing part in politics, becoming a senator 1881, minister for public instruction 1886, and foreign minister 1895–96.
Berthelot first studied alcohols, showing in 1854 that glycerol is a triatomic alcohol; he combined it with fatty (aliphatic) acids to make fats, including fats that do not occur naturally. This work provided increasing justification for the view that organic chemistry deals with all the compounds of carbon and not just compounds formed and found in nature. He continued his research by investigating sugars, which he identified as being both alcohols and aldehydes. Using crude but effective methods, he also synthesized many simple organic compounds. His work during the 1850s was summed up in his book Chimie organique fondée sur la synthèse 1860.
Berthelot began his studies of thermochemistry 1864. He measured the heat changes during chemical reactions, inventing the bomb calorimeter to do so and to study the speeds of explosive reactions. He introduced the term exothermic to describe a reaction that evolves heat, and endothermic for a reaction that absorbs heat. He published Mécanique chimique 1878 and Thermochimie 1897.
As the son of a Paris physician, Berthelot saw the city life of the poor and the sick and was often unwell himself. His...