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Goldschmidt in Britain

V M Goldschmidt

Geoscientist 17.3 March 2007

On the 60th anniversary of V M Goldschmidt's death, Geoff Glasby explores the life and times of one of geochemistry's pioneers…

Victor Moritz Goldschmidt is one of the greats of geochemistry, whose pioneering work in the early decades of the 20th Century established the new discipline of geochemistry1. His successful interwar research in Oslo and Göttingen and the reasons for his departure from Göttingen in 1935 as a result of the rise of the Nazi Party are well known (see Box). Less well known are his contacts with scientific colleagues in Britain, the circumstances of his move to Britain in 1943 and the seminal role of British scientists in ensuring Goldschmidt’s future reputation after the war.

In 1935, Goldschmidt left Göttingen, despite support from his fellow academics, in protest at the increasingly harsh restrictions placed on Jews as the power of the Nazi party increased. Returning to Oslo without prospects, he fell back on his industrial work until his appointment to an academic post in 1936, whereupon, for the third time, he established a laboratory and expanded his work on element abundances to include the solar system. However, with the German occupation of Norway from 1942, Goldschmidt’s life became increasingly hard. He made no secret of his Jewish heritage and suffered for it. His home and money were confiscated, as were his library, papers and laboratory equipment. He was arrested, threatened with deportation to Auschwitz and spent time in Berg concentration camp. He was released following the intervention of senior colleagues from the university on the basis of the value of his work to the state. Under the threat of deportation, he escaped to Sweden in December 1942.

On March 3 1943, Goldschmidt was flown to Britain by the Secret Intelligence Service where he passed on information about technical developments in occupied Norway. He then stayed on in London, amid uncertainty about his role; the Norwegian government in exile supported him, but did not want him to stay in London at their expense. In August 1943, it was finally agreed that he would work for the Agricultural Research Council and he moved to the Macaulay Institute for Soil Research in Aberdeen.

During that summer, Goldschmidt was heavily involved in discussions with the Norwegian and British authorities on German exploitation of raw materials and production of heavy water in Norway among other things1. He also attended conferences in Cambridge, Manchester, Sheffield, Edinburgh and Aberdeen and gave a lecture to the British Coal Utilization Research Association on the occurrence of rare elements in coal ashes2. This busy five months in London was by no means his first contact with UK researchers.

Goldschmidt had a lifelong connection with Leonard Hawkes, later President of the Geological Society of London, who carried out the studies for his M.Sc. in Oslo on the geology of Iceland in 1914-1915 and he knew C E Tilley from the field meeting in Stavanger in 1922. He also visited W H Bragg in 1921 to ask for his help in determining the structure of calcium carbide in order to get exemption from tarriffs imposed on imports of organic chemicals to Britain. In 1928, Goldschmidt met J D Bernal for the first time at Bad Ems where they talked about crystal chemistry nonstop for 12 hours. He was also invited to give lectures at the Faraday Society and the Royal Institution by Sir William Bragg in 1929 when he probably met J D Bernal, W L Bragg and Kathleen Lonsdale. Goldschmidt was elected a Foreign Fellow of the Geological Society of London in 1931 and an Honorary Member of the Mineralogical Society in 1933. In March 1937, Goldschmidt gave the seventh Hugo Müller lecture of the Chemical Society. These lectures were published,3,4,5 giving excellent accounts of his work up to this time. However, they were not published in mainstream geological journals and would not have been well known within the British geological community. In September 1939, L R Wager, then at the University of Reading, sought Goldschmidt’s advice on the use of biotite as a substitute for potash fertilisers imported from Germany seven days after the outbreak of war. Tilley’s masterly overview of Goldschmidt’s scientific contributions after his death6 suggests that his work was very influential in British geology in the interwar years, at least in some quarters.

In going to the Macaulay Institute in 1943, Goldschmidt had an enormous stroke of luck because he came under the influence of the Director of the Institute, Dr W G (later Sir William) Ogg, who was to become his patron for the rest of his stay in Britain. Despite illness when he arrived in Aberdeen, Goldschmidt was soon at work again, publishing on crystal chemistry and geochemistry7, and on the geochemical background of minor-element distribution8. Both papers were essentially summaries of his earlier work in German but, again, they brought his work to a wider audience. At the urging of Ogg, Goldschmidt spent much of his time at the Macaulay working on his magnum opus on geochemistry1 and took great interest in soil research through his contacts with Ogg, Alex Muir and others9.

In 1943, Ogg became director of the prestigious Rothamsted Experimental Station in Harpenden after the retirement of Sir John Russell, but remained an honorary director at the Macaulay Institute until 1945. Goldschmidt stayed at the Macaulay Institute for almost a year after Ogg left. At that time, British agriculture was still struggling to come to terms with the upheavals of the war years and the attendant food shortages10. In September 1943, Goldschmidt was involved in setting up a committee to discuss research into clay minerals and soil formation which might in turn improve Britain’s self-sufficiency in food11. Goldschmidt also prepared a memorandum entitled Development of Geochemical Research in Great Britain and in the British Commonwealth dated January 24, 1944 in which he gave his opinions on the future development of geochemistry in Britain, with particular regard to problems of industrial and agricultural importance. He proposed the setting up of an institute to undertake systematic studies of geochemistry that could lead to increased use of the mineral resources of the British Empire, and advise on the most profitable use of soil. In this regard, he considered the future evolution of geochemistry to be of the utmost importance from both a scientific and an economic (agriculture, mining and industry) standpoint.

While at the Macaulay Institute, Goldschmidt was elected a Foreign Member of the Royal Society (one of 50) for his work on the metamorphic petrology of Norway, the crystal structure of ionic compounds and the terrestrial distribution of the elements. In January 1944, he was awarded the Wollaston Medal, the highest award of the Geological Society of London, and in February 1944, he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws (LLD) by the University of Aberdeen. In May 1945, Goldschmidt was also elected an Honorary Member of the Chemical Society1. These awards show the high esteem in which Goldschmidt was held in Britain at that time.

Goldschmidt moved from Aberdeen to Harpenden to continue to work with Ogg in 1944, but heart trouble before and after the move severely restricted his activities. He continued to work, writing papers for publication and producing a manuscript (published posthumously) on the geochemical aspects of the origin of complex organic molecules on Earth as precursors to organic life. Here Goldschmidt became the first (with J D Bernal) to recognise the role of clay minerals in transforming organic molecules into the precursors of organic life12 - a topic that remains an active field of research to this day13.

Goldschmidt made a good impression in Britain. At Rothamsted, he was liked by everybody and was affectionately called ‘Goldie’14. In return, he deeply appreciated the help extended to him at Macaulay and Rothamsted6. However, he was determined to return to Oslo1 - a decision not universally welcomed in Norway. In spite of this, and delayed again by illness, Goldschmidt finally returned there on 26 June 1946.

His homecoming brought him happiness, restored his house (requisitioned during the occupation) to him and work as Director of the Geological Museum and the Raw Materials Research Laboratory. Despite continuing illness, he was publishing again and intending to attend the International Chemical Conference in London in July 1947. But in late 1946 he had had treatment for malignant melanoma and, following a later operation for cancer, he died at home on 20 March 1947.

After Goldschmidt's death, much effort was put into producing his Geochemistry. particularly by Alex Muir who acted as editor for this volume. The "Goldschmidt rules" for the distribution of trace elements were also extensively examined and found wanting in many respects; yet, as Goldschmidt himself understood, they functioned as an approximation based on many examples. These and much else in Goldschmidt's great body of research laid the foundations for modern geochemistry as a science based on fundamental physics and chemistry.

A powerful legacy

Goldschmidt’s posthumous publication Geochemistry made his ideas known to a much wider English-speaking audience, rapidly becoming a standard text (although advances in analytical chemistry coupled with the multi-element approach to the analysis of rock complexes adopted by Wager and Mitchell16 soon rendered it dated). However, Goldschmidt’s future status in the English-speaking world undoubtedly derives from the publication of this book.

According to the Editor’s Notes, the book was begun at the suggestion of Sir William Ogg. Goldschmidt had only partially completed the manuscript at Macaulay and Rothamsted before his death. In the summer of 1948, Brian Mason visited Goldschmidt’s old institute in Oslo and found Ivar Oftedal working through hundreds of pages of manuscript intended for this volume1. However, some of the chapters had not even been started, and much of the material was in Goldschmidt’s own handwriting, which was difficult to decipher. Goldschmidt himself was of the opinion that the book scarcely came up to his own standards, having been written in hospital after the loss of all his own library and notes from the previous 20 years.

The book would almost certainly have never been published if Alex Muir (Head of the Pedology Department at Rothamsted and a colleague of Goldschmidt at both the Macaulay and Rothamsted Institutes) had not undertaken to edit and compile it from Goldschmidt’s own very incomplete notes17. However, this was a formidable proposition that involved major contributions from several British, Norwegian and Swedish colleagues. The motivation to publish this volume probably came from the desire to see geochemistry established as an important academic discipline in Britain.

Goldschmidt’s career highlights

Goldschmidt with Einstein V M Goldschmidt was born in Zürich on 27 January 1888 and died in Oslo on 20 March 1947. His scientific life and work have been described in detail by Tilley6, Mason1 and Wedepohl18. Goldschmidt attended the University at Kristiania (renamed Oslo in 1925) from 1905 and was awarded his doctorate in 1911 for his work on contact metamorphism of the Kristiania region. In 1914, at the age of 26, he was appointed Professor and Director of the Mineralogical Institute of the university. In 1917, Goldschmidt was appointed Chairman of the Commission for Raw Materials and Director of the Raw Materials Laboratory1.

At this time, Goldschmidt defined the basic problem of geochemistry as finding the general laws and principles which underlie the frequency and distribution of the elements and proposed to attack this problem using the new techniques of X-ray powder diffraction and X-ray spectrum analysis. Goldschmidt and his colleagues began investigating the distribution of the rare earth elements in a large number of rare earth minerals21,1 and in three composites of European and Japanese shales20.

Goldschmidt then switched his attention to determining the size of ions which became possible with the determination of the ionic radii of the fluorine and oxygen anions in 1923. Goldschmidt demonstrated and named the ‘lanthanide contraction19,21. Between 1924 and 1926, Goldschmidt and his colleagues also determined the ionic radii of cations and anions of 67 elements in addition to the rare earth mineral data22,1,18. Linus Pauling produced his table of ionic radii using a different approach one year after Goldschmidt4,1.

From his ionic radii, Goldschmidt was able to determine the coordination number of elements in crystals from the ratios of the radii of the principal cations and anions in the crystal. This work led to a consideration of the role of polarisation on crystal structure which is most marked in crystals of transition element with highly polarisable anions from the IV, V and VI B groups of the Periodic Table22,4,23.

In 1923, Goldschmidt proposed a classification of the elements as siderophilic, chalcophilic and lithophilic, based on a consideration of how elements would be partitioned between the nickel-iron, troilite (FeS) and silicate phases in meteorites24. Goldschmidt also calculated the average major element composition of the Earth’s crust, based on glacial clay from the FennoScandian ice sheet, which was in good agreement with F W Clarke’s average based on the average composition of 5159 analyses of igneous rocks taken from the literature.

Between 1923 and 1927, Goldschmidt and his colleagues published eight volumes of the Geochemische Verteilungsgesetze der Elemente (The laws of the geochemical distribution of the elements) for which he is perhaps best known from this period.

In September, 1929, Goldschmidt moved to Göttingen as Professor of Mineralogy and proceeded to build up an even larger team than he had in Oslo and generated large amounts of published analytical data. Goldschmidt persuaded the physicist, R Mannkopff, to build him optical spectrographs using the carbon arc technique which had a detection limit of 1 ppm for several elements and which had not previously been used for the quantitative analysis of rocks and minerals. During his time in Göttingen, Goldschmidt used these instruments for the analysis of both terrestrial and meteoritic material and Goldschmidt spared no effort to gather materials for his research from all quarters of the globe23. With this new technique, Goldschmidt was able to revolutionise trace element geochemistry.

The main finding of his trace element work was the role of ionic radius and charge on the capture and camouflage of elements in the crystal lattices of silicates and sulphides which became known as the Goldschmidt Rules5. These rules made it possible to discriminate between elements introduced early into the crystals of common rock-forming minerals and those introduced later.

When he left Germany in September 1935, Goldschmidt had to start all over again in Oslo in difficult economic and professional circumstances. His major achievement was the publication of Volume IX of the Geochemische Verteilungsgesetze der Elemente (the "Ninth Symphony") in 193725. In this study, he compiled data on the abundance of elements in the solar atmosphere, meteorites and terrestrial rocks and plotted the logarithms of the ratios of atomic species in the solar system relative to the abundance of silicon25,15,1. In May 1940, Goldschmidt submitted Volume X in this series on the distribution of some elements in meteorites for publication in this series and had compiled the material for volume XI by September 1941 but neither volume was ever published1.

The nine volumes in the Geochemische Verteilungsgesetze der Elemente (the distribution laws of the elements) which Goldschmidt published between 1923 and 1927 and in 1937 plus the eighteen papers on the geochemistry of the elements which he published in Nachrichten der Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen Mathematisch-physikalische Klasse IV between 1930 and 1935 represent a magisterial standard of scholarship which Goldschmidt was never able to achieve again.

Leaving Germany in 1935

A little something for the mantelpiece - Goldschmidt's letter of dismissal, signed by Hitler and Goering. The University of Göttingen had a world-class reputation in the mathematical and natural sciences between 1880 and 1933. The period following 1933 was the university’s darkest chapter and ended the Göttingen Nobel Prize wonder. In 1935, Goldschmidt resigned his professorship in protest against the treatment of “non-Aryans” in Germany. 50 other lecturers and professors also had to leave the University at that time because of the National Socialist Party’s rise to power. The world-class Department of Physics lost its most important members when Franck, Born, Courant, Weyl and Goldschmidt all fled26,27.

In his own account of the situation, Goldschmidt stressed that the Göttingen University authorities had always treated him in a most pleasant and agreeable manner, and given him any facilities for scientific work that he required. He felt that the general attitude to “non-Aryans” at that time was a very great misfortune but that it was his duty to science and his coworkers at the institute to keep his work going at Göttingen through the years 1933, 1934 until the summer of 1935, an attitude that was encouraged in every manner by the authorities. However, he had already felt it necessary to resign from the chairmanship of the Gesellschaft Deutscher Naturforscher und Ärzte, Naturwissenschaften Hauptgruppe (corresponding to the British Association) at a time when his colleagues who were “non-Aryan” like himself were being driven from their positions.

However, on 1 May 1935, a large sign was placed not far from his institute with the inscription ‘Jews not desired’. Goldschmidt then gave notice that he would resign his professorship if this sign was not taken down because he could not reconcile his presence in Göttingen with such an open attack on Jews in the same town. Within 24 hours, the sign was removed. However, in August of that year, a similar sign was erected just opposite the institute. Goldschmidt renewed his protest. This time the sign was not removed because these signs had been placed in all German towns on direct orders from the uppermost party leaders. On the next day (11 August 1935), Goldschmidt resigned his position in Göttingen and expressed his intention to leave the country. Goldschmidt and his father had to leave all their financial resources in Germany, although they were allowed to take their furniture, library and instruments for research back to Norway. He had no other position on offer, so his emigration involved great financial risk.

Goldschmidt felt it was necessary to give his reasons for leaving Germany in spite of his devotion to the University of Göttingen where he spent the most active years of his scientific career. He emphasised that neither his own attitude nor the treatment he had received had been that of a martyr and that he had only done what he considered to be correct and necessary. He did not consider his fate tragic since he was now directing laboratories superior to the ones he had left in Göttingen, as well as developing industrial processes. However, he admitted that the last years had been very strenuous and up to the limit of his health in some instances as well as a strain on his conscience.

Of course, Goldschmidt was gilding the lily somewhat. His resignation from Göttingen must have been a huge blow. The few years in Göttingen up to 1933 were perhaps the happiest in his life6,9. There is no doubt that, in normal times, he would have spent the rest of his career in Göttingen - but fate decreed otherwise. However, this account emphasises Goldschmidt’s integrity in a very difficult situation.

V.M. Goldschmidt as Icon

In 1958, the Deutsche Mineralogische Gesellschaft (DMG) inaugurated the Viktor-Moritz-Goldschmidt-Preis to honour young, internationally recognized mineralogists. In 1972, the Geochemical Society instituted the Goldschmidt Medal as the highest award of the society. In 1988, the first Goldschmidt Conference was held in Hunt Valley, Maryland, to mark the hundredth anniversary of Goldschmidt’s birth. In 2006, more than 1400 geochemists participated in the 16th Annual Goldschmidt Conference held in Melbourne. Goldschmidt is without doubt the best known geochemist in the world today and has become the standard bearer for the profession. His status depends principally on his scientific reputation rather than on the vagaries of his life which are less well known.


This article is a summary of a much longer paper published in The Geochemical News 2006 October issue. The author is indebted to Professors K.H. Wedepohl and G. Wörner, Goldschmidt’s successors in Göttingen, for their support in writing the original article and to Sue Bowler and Ted Nield for their help in preparing this summary for publication.


1. Mason B 1992. Victor Moritz Goldschmidt (1888-1947): Father of Modern Geochemistry. The Geochemical Society Special Publication No. 4, xi. + 184pp.
2. Goldschmidt V M 1943. The occurrence of rare elements in coal ashes (Lecture delivered to the BCURA Research staff, 8 May, 1943). 5pp.
3. Goldschmidt V M 1929a. Crystal structure and chemical constitution A Lecture delivered before the Faraday Society on Thursday, 14th March, 1929. Transactions of the Faraday Society 25, 253–283.
4. Goldschmidt V M 1929b. The distribution of the chemical elements. Proc. R. Instn 26, 73–86.
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16. Wager L R and Mitchell R L 1951. The distribution of trace elements during strong fractionation of basic magma - a further study in of the Skaergaard Intrusion, East Greenland. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 1, 129–208.
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Geoff Glasby, Dept. of Geochemistry, GZG, Goldschmidtstr. 1, University of Göttingen, Germany: [email protected]