Every chemist knows Justus von Liebig. He developed modern analytical methods, founded the journal Justus Liebig’s Annalen der Chemie, established modern mineral fertilization and the beginning of agrochemistry, developed a manufacturing process for beef extracts, discovered the anesthetic chloroform simultaneously with two other researchers, and much more. The Liebig Museum in Gießen, Germany, is the chemist’s historic laboratory where he worked from 1824 to 1852. It is considered the birthplace of modern chemistry.
Fire Destroys Historic Auditorium – The Place of Liebig’s Fist Experimental Lectures
A fire at the Liebig Museum destroyed parts of the historic auditorium and affected the analytical and pharmaceutical laboratory and library in the evening of December 5, 2022. The front area of the auditorium, including the experimental table, was destroyed by the fire. This is where the first experimental lectures were held under Liebig.
The fact that the damage is not even greater is thanks to the prudent actions of a tenant who lives in the building and quickly alerted the fire department. “According to the police, the cause of the fire cannot be determined with 100 % certainty at the present time”, says Professor Gerd Hamscher, Chairman of the Justus Liebig-Gesellschaft zu Gießen e.V.
Due to the damage, the museum must remain closed until further notice. A great loss. Following Liebig’s tradition, the museum regularly offered experimental lectures in the historic auditorium in addition to guided tours. The audience then sat on the original preserved wooden benches in Liebig’s auditorium and let themselves be inspired by chemistry.
Which Chemist in the 19th Century Did Not Study Under Liebig?
Justus Liebig had a talent to inspire others about chemistry. At the age of 21, he inspired Alexander von Humboldt during a lecture. Through Humboldt’s recommendation to the Grand Duke of Hessen, Liebig was appointed Associate Professor at the State University of Gießen.
Liebig used his laboratory building in Gießen simultaneously as a workshop and teaching facility, thus becoming a model for all branches of experimental research in the natural sciences. The building was relatively small. On the first floor, it consisted of a larger room, the “Old Laboratory”, and four smaller rooms: a weighing room, a magazine, a dishwashing room, and a writing room. Liebig moved into a private apartment on the upper floor, where he later lived with his wife and ultimately five children. As was customary in Gießen at the time, Liebig initially used a private room on the upper floor part-time as a lecture hall for his initial twelve students.
When Liebig received and declinded a call to the University of St. Petersburg in Russia in the summer of 1838, he was able to negotiate that a one-story transverse wing be added to the existing laboratory in Gießen in 1839/40. This housed the pharmaceutical laboratory, a library, a second weighing room, an analytical laboratory, and the auditorium for experimental lectures with 70 seats.
Liebig built the first chemical laboratory for experimental teaching. His teaching methods, his discoveries, and his writings quickly made him known worldwide, and the university in Gießen became a central point for chemical studies. In addition to many German chemists, numerous foreigners, including 84 Englishmen and 18 Americans, came to Gießen to listen to Liebig’s lectures on chemistry and pharmacy, including, for example, August Wilhelm von Hofmann, who studied under Liebig from 1836 to 1845, earned his doctorate and habilitated as his assistant.
Liebig Inspires Students – Then and Now
Recently, the JungChemiker Forum (JCF) in Giessen has been involved in guided tours of the Liebig Museum. What interests young people today about Justus Liebig?
“I think as students at Justus Liebig University, we basically have a closer relationship with Liebig,” said one student. However, that is perhaps only half the truth. In conversation, it quickly became clear that they were also quite enthusiastic about the personality of this great historical chemist. Liebig is still a role model and inspiration today.
“Liebig was not only a chemist but interested in the welfare of mankind, he really tried to do something good for people using chemistry. I find that super fascinating,” says one student. Another student adds: “… and that he tried to get the masses excited about chemistry. That’s also an art, that you can do scientific research at a high level and at the same time train the next generation, and additionally inspire others for the subject.” “And then marketing on the side, with his collectible pictures. He was so versatile.” The collectible pictures, or “Liebig pictures”, partially anticipated today’s branded product advertising. They were attached to the product packages of Liebig’s meat extract and helped it quickly rise to become a dominant global brand.
Some students find it very relatable that this so successful and ingenious chemist first had to overcome quite a few failures: He was expelled from school because he had tried to produce fulminate powder. He had to abandon an apprenticeship as a pharmacist after ten months because he caused a roof fire after private experiments with silver fulminate. Liebig was not deterred in his enthusiasm for chemistry, however, and taught himself a great deal of chemistry from books. In addition, he worked as an assistant to his father, a materials dealer who also produced paints and varnishes. And finally, Liebig’s persistent enthusiasm paid off: He studied chemistry and earned his doctorate at breakneck speed, becoming a Professor in Gießen at the age of 22.
What’s Next for the Liebig Museum?
At the moment, the association that runs the museum is still “taking stock”. It will certainly take some time, but they hope to get the museum back to full operation.
In the summer, one of the students said about the museum, “Personally, I’m not really a museum guy, but this is not a boring museum – it is a place where you can really also pass on the fascination with chemistry and show Liebig’s importance well.” With their involvement in the museum and chemistry background, the students want to pass on Liebig’s ideas and his enthusiasm for chemistry. “The museum is a good place to see how progress was driven by Liebig and how close chemistry is to everyday life.” The students are keen to convey this to a broad audience, to reach people who are not familiar with Liebig. “I would also like to address a new target group – people in our generation, or even younger, schoolchildren, maybe smaller children, and get them excited about chemistry.”
Let’s hope that things can continue soon after the fire and that this gem will soon be open to the public again and that the enthusiasm for Justus Liebig and for chemistry can remain visible and alive at this place.
The first and second Chairmen of the Justus Liebig-Gesellschaft zu Gießen e.V., Professor Gerd Hamscher and Professor Richard Göttlich, also try to take something positive from the situation: “Even though the fire is a tragedy, we also see it as an opportunity to finally carry out urgently needed modernization measures in the Liebig Museum. Especially the building and safety security technology need a basic renovation including energy-saving measures. To implement this master plan, we need not only subsidies from public sources, but also many private donations.”
Let’s hope the museum can reopen soon. For whoever would like to help, a donation account has been set up: Justus Liebig-Gesellschaft zu Gießen e.V., Volksbank Mittelhessen, BIC: VBMHDE5F, IBAN: DE66 5139 0000 0003 9916 01; oder Sparkasse Gießen, BIC: SKGIDE5F, IBAN: DE72 5135 0025 0200 5813 50.
 Karola Schepp, Marc Schäfer, Brand in Gießen: Feuer zerstört historischen Hörsaal von Justus Liebig – 100.000 Euro Schaden, Gießener Allgemeine, 06.12.2022, 17:19 Uhr (accessed December 9, 2022)
 Rüdiger Schäfer, Gießener Allgemeine, 06.12.2022
 Liebig Museum Website (accessed December 9, 2022)