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The Life of Andres Manuel Del Rio and the Discovery of a New Element - Vanadium

Updated on July 14, 2018
Portrait of Andrés Manuel del Río (1764–1849), Spanish-Mexican geologist and chemist.
Portrait of Andrés Manuel del Río (1764–1849), Spanish-Mexican geologist and chemist.

Andres Manuel Del Rio was born in Madrid, Spain on November 10th, 1764. He began his studies at the College of San Isidro, and received his bachelor’s degree at the University of Alcala de Henares. In a public contest in experimental physics held by Don Jose Solano, Del Rio made such a strong impression that King Charles III took notice and personally arranged and paid for Del Rio to continue his education at the Mining Academy of Almaden. There, he excelled in his studies yet again and was selected by Don Diego Gardoqui for further government sponsored scholarships to study in France, England and Germany.

Del Rio studied medicine, natural history and chemistry in Paris, and beginning in 1789 attended the Royal School of Mines in Freiberg, Saxony, where he met Baron Alexander Von Humboldt – a fellow student who would become a lifelong friend. At the Freiberg academy, Del Rio studied mineralogy and geognosy (an archaic branch of geology dealing with the constitution of the earth’s crust and interior), and went on to study analytical chemistry, subterranean geometry, and metallurgy at the Royal School of Mining and Forestry in Schemnitz, Hungary (now part of the Czech Republic).

In 1791 Del Rio went to England and studied the country’s metallurgic industry, and returned to France but was forced to escape the country disguised as a water carrier when the French Revolution claimed the life of his mentor, Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier – one of the guillotine’s many random victims whose only crimes were the possession of wealth or status in a country whose poor had reached their breaking point. Lavoisier lost his life on August 8th, 1794.

Following this tragedy Del Rio fled back to England but did not stay for long. From there he went to Austria, Transylvania, and Saxony - never staying long in one place - until finally the Spanish government caught up with Del Rio in Vienna and sent word that he was to travel to New Spain (Mexico) and assist in the establishment of a School of Mines in Mexico City.

Facade of the Colegio de Mineria museum on Tacuba Street in the historic center of Mexico City. Photo taken July 9, 2009.
Facade of the Colegio de Mineria museum on Tacuba Street in the historic center of Mexico City. Photo taken July 9, 2009. | Source

This new school became known as the Real Seminario (Royal School), and Del Rio would remain there for the rest of his life. In 1810 when the Mexican war for independence broke out, the school was renamed El Colegio de Mineria (The College of Mining). In 1821 the Spanish crown lost control of Mexico and by extension, the school. Del Rio was invited back to Spain, but chose to remain at El Colegio de Mineria in Mexico City.

In 1829 native Spaniards were ordered deported from Mexico, but Del Rio was granted an exception. He chose to leave anyway. He traveled to Philadelphia where he lived for six years and became a member of the American Philosophical Society, returning to Mexico and the college in 1834, where he remained for the rest of his life.

Vanadium is a chemical element with the symbol V and atomic number 23.
Vanadium is a chemical element with the symbol V and atomic number 23. | Source

In his many years at Mexico City’s Colegio de Mineria, Del Rio contributed much to the field of mineralogy. He had the honor of teaching the first course in mineralogy in New Spain, published a multi-volume textbook book called Elementos de la Orictognosia (Elements of Practical Mineralogy), taught the most well respected mineralogists and mining engineers in Mexico at the time, and it was at this school where, in 1801, Del Rio discovered Vanadium. Sadly he would not retain full credit for his discovery.

When Del Rio was sent a batch of samples from a mine in Zimpan in 1801, he believed upon examining them that he had discovered a new metallic element, which he tentatively named “pancromium” while he carried out further tests on the material to ensure that his discovery was legitimate. After observing that the material turned red when heated, he chose to rename the new element eritronium, from the Greek word “eritros,” meaning “red.” However, when he sent his samples to several colleagues in Europe, they were only able to find chromium and were not able to confirm the presence of Del Rio’s new element. As a result Del Rio recanted his claim of discovery.

Vanadium crystals made by electrolysis, altogether 1 gram. The largest is 2 cm in length.
Vanadium crystals made by electrolysis, altogether 1 gram. The largest is 2 cm in length. | Source

Nearly thirty years later, in 1830, the element was rediscovered by the Swedish chemist Nils Gabriel Sefstrom, who named the element vanadium after the Scandinavian Goddess of love and beauty, Vanadis. Del Rio’s samples were then re-examined against the newly discovered vanadium by the German chemist Fredrich Wholer, who declared that eritronium and vanadium were the same material.

By the time of his death, Del Rio was a member of scientific societies in Germany, Spain, France, Mexico and the United States. He contributed much to the study of mineralogy, chemistry and various Earth sciences in an international capacity, though the breadth of his achievements and contributions remains under-recognized in English speaking countries. Andres Manuel Del Rio died in Mexico City on March 23, 1849.

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