…Long, long ago there lived in the Far North Vanadis, a beautiful goddess. One day when she was reclining comfortably in her chair she heard a knock on the door. She thought to herself: “Let him knock once more”. But the knock was not repeated and she heard someone go away. The goddess was curious: “Who could that modest and diffident visitor be”? She opened a window and looked out. That was old Wohler himself who, of course, would have deserved a reward if he had been more persistent.
A few days later she again heard knocking on the door but this time it went on and on until she opened the door. She was confronted by Nils Sefström. They fell in love with each other and had a son whom they named Vanadium. That was the name of the new metal…
This is how the Swedish chemist Berzelius described the history of its discovery in his letter to F. Wohler on January 28, 1831. The story was rather unusual and not the least role in it was played by the ability of vanadium to form salts of varied colours.
In Mexico, near the village of Cimapan, deposits of lead ore were found and in 1801 a sample fell into the hands of Andres Manuel del Rio, a professor of mineralogy from Mexico City. The scientist, a good analyst, studied the sample and came to the conclusion that it contained a new metal similar to chromium and uranium. Del Rio obtained several compounds of the metal which were all of different colours. The scientist named it “panchromium”, the Greek for omnicoloured, but subsequently changed it into “erytronium” which means “red” since many salts of the new element turned red upon heating. The name of del Rio was little known to European chemists who, learning about his results, doubted them. The Mexican mineralogist himself lost confidence and, studying “erytronium”, he practically “closed” his discovery saying that the element was nothing else than lead chromate. He sent a new article to Europe entitled “The Discovery of Chromium in Lead Ore from Cimapan”. H. Collet–Descoties from Paris analysed a sample of the ore in 1809 and confirmed the Mexican scientist’s erroneous conclusion. Erroneous, because del Rio really discovered vanadium. It is difficult to explain why del Rio was so unsure of his results. In 1832 after the second discovery of vanadium he wrote in a text–book on mineralogy that the metal discovered by him was vanadium and not chromium. But the credit for discovering vanadium went to the Swedish chemist N. Sefström.
It was Sefström who in 1830 isolated a small amount of the new element from iron ore extracted in the Taberg mine. Shortly before the discovery of the new element F. Wohler studied the lead ore from Cimapan in which thirty years before A. del Rio had found “erytronium”.
Wohler wrote to J. Liebig on January 2, 1831, that he had already found something new in the ore. However, experimenting with hydrogen fluoride vapour, Wohler was poisoned and could not work for several months. One can imagine how disappointed he was when he learned about N. Sefström’s discovery. J. Berzelius tried to console his friend and colleague, writing to him that a chemist who had discovered a method of synthesizing an organic compound (Wohler synthesized urea) could well renounce a claim to the priority of discovering a new element since his accomplishment was equivalent to the discovery of ten new elements. J. Berzelius and N. Sefström named the new element “vanadium” after Vanadis, the Scandinavian goddess of beauty. Meanwhile Wohler ended the study of the Mexican ore and proved that it contained vanadium and not chromium as A. del Rio believed. Subsequently this mineral was named “vanadinite”; it was found in different parts of the globe. J. Berzelius and N. Sefström continued to study vanadium and concluded that it was similar to chromium. Their attempts to prepare metallic vanadium were unsuccessful and, for some time, it seemed that they mistook either oxide or nitride of vanadium for the metal. The final chapter in the vanadium story brings up the name of the English chemist H. Roskoe. In 1860’s he performed a detailed study of the chemical properties of vanadium and showed that this element was similar neither to chromium nor uranium. On the contrary, he thought that vanadium was similar to nionium and tantalum on the one hand, and to the elements of the phosphorus group on the other. In 1869 Roskoe succeeded in preparing metallic vanadium. D. I. Mendeleev highly appreciated the work of this scientist believing that it had played a great role in the discovery of the periodic law.