At the Warsaw Society Naturalist’s convention in 1903, a 31 year old scientist by the name of Mikhail Tswett gave a seminal lecture on a technique for the separation of solvated plant pigments by means of differential adsorption of the plant pigments on a suspended solid media[1]. The technique we now call column chromatography had been invented. One wonders if the attendees of this lecture fully grasped the importance of his presentation. One can arguably make the claim that Tswett’s invention led to major advancements in the areas of biology, biochemistry, genetics, chemistry, pharmacology, medical research, material science, aerospace, petrochemistry, nuclear science and much more.

Furthermore, Tswett’s work on differential adsorption was the foundation upon which our modern understanding of distribution constants based. Tswett was a naturalist by training and received his first Ph.D. from the University of Geneva in 1896 at the age of 24 with his thesis “Investigations on the Physiology of Cells: Materials Leading to the Knowledge of the Movement of Protoplasma, Plasma Membranes and Chloroplasts.” He later moved to Russia where he continued his research and, at the age of 38, defended a second Ph.D. thesis from Warsaw University in 1910 titled “Chlorophylls in Plants and Animals.”[2] Tswett’s first application of liquid chromatography, to separate and isolate plant pigments, explains in part the etymology of the term chromatography, which is derived from the Greek words graphein – to write, and chroma – color; quite literally color writing.

[1] Tsvet, M. S.; Warsaw. Obshch. Estestvoisp. Otd. Biol. (Tr. Proceedings of the Warsaw Society of Naturalists) 1903, 14, 20-39
[2] For additional articles on Mikhail Tswett, see Berezkin, V. G.; Chem Rev. 1989, 89, 279-285; Strain, H. H. and Sherma J.; J. Chem. Ed. 1967, 44(4) 235-237; Williams, K. R.; J. Chem. Ed. 2002, 79(8), 922-923.