The British Journal for the History of Science

S. M. Jørgensen and his controversy with A. Werner: a reconsideration

a1 History of Science Department, Aarhus University, 8000 Aarhus, Denmark


The controversy between Alfred Werner and Sophus Mads Jørgensen over the structure of complex inorganic compounds is not among the best known of the many controversies in the history of chemistry, but it is one of the most thoroughly described in the historical literature. This is due almost solely to the works of George Kauffman, the distinguished American historian of chemistry and specialist in the history of coordination chemistry. Kauffman has described and analysed almost every aspect of the development of coordination chemistry and has in several works dealt with the Werner–Jørgensen controversy which ran from 1894 to 1899. Because of Kauffman's expertise and many works in the area, his account is likely to be taken as authoritative and his conclusions repeated in later historical works. This paper argues that this is unwarranted at least in one particular respect, namely the evaluation of Jørgensen and the way the controversy terminated. Kauffman's version of this episode has frequently appeared in print during a period of thirty-five years, first in 1959 and most recently in 1994. My conclusion is that it cannot survive critical examination.

History of Science Department, Aarhus University, 8000 Aarhus, Denmark.