The fact that Liebig’s first major workplace has remained almost intact to this day is a godsend for the history of chemistry. Even the benches the visitors sit on are originals from the mid-19th century. “If you look at the footrests, you can see the marks made by students over many decades,” says Dietmar Linder, the 70-year-old chemist who runs the archive at the Justus Liebig Gesellschaft (Justus Liebig Society). The Society is the operator of this museum, which opened in 1920.
Around the turn of the 20th century, plans were afoot to raze the museum to make way for the expansion of the Giessen railway station. Opposition to this project quickly grew among chemistry professors, who then founded the Gesellschaft Liebig Museum (Liebig Museum Society) and mounted a vigorous campaign to ensure that the labs, the lecture hall, and Liebig’s office would be preserved for history.
Establishment and reopening of the museum
Emanuel August Merck soon moved to the forefront of the Liebig preservation movement. In 1911 Merck purchased the building from the city of Giessen and donated it to the newly founded Museum Society a few years later. The Liebig family, students, friends, and the University of Giessen were all involved in the project, and their efforts and dedication ultimately led to the establishment of the museum, which opened its doors in March 1920.
The bombing of Giessen in World War II heavily damaged the museum, according to Manfred Kröger, Secretary of the Liebig Society. One bomb hit Liebig’s first lab, says Kröger, a microbiology professor. Fortunately, the museum’s stock and collections had been stored in a safe place beforehand, so it was able to reopen relatively quickly after the war — in 1952.
Fritz Merck, who was then the Chairman of the Justus Liebig Society, used the occasion of the museum’s reopening to highlight Liebig’s achievements, which paved the way for modern chemistry. Said Merck, “The entire civilized world utilized Liebig’s fundamental discoveries,” which included everything from elemental analysis to chemical fertilization.
Liebig and Merck: a productive relationship
From the establishment of the museum to its reconstruction and its reopening, the names Liebig and Merck have repeatedly been linked together. The origins of the relationship date back to the early 19th century, when a “close scientific and personal connection” between Justus Liebig and Emanuel Merck already existed, according to an article in the Merck-Blatt employee magazine in 1952 on the reopening of the Liebig Museum.
Liebig was nine years younger than Merck, and both of them were natives of Darmstadt. But it wasn’t geographical proximity that bound these two young men together. “Without a doubt it was their identical way of thinking,” wrote the physician and literary scholar Fritz Ebner in his article for the magazine “Medizinischer Monatsspiegel, eine Zeitschrift für den Arzt“, which was also published in 1952.
“There’s no doubt that Liebig established the scientific foundations of the chemical industry,” says Sabine Bernschneider-Reif, Head of Corporate History at Merck. “Emanuel Merck, for his part, was one of the first to put pharmacology on a scientific basis and usher in the transition from manual to industrial production.”
The two families were also close. Merck, for example, sent his son Georg off to study in Giessen, where he discovered the antispasmodic alkaloid papaverine in opium. Liebig’s son Hermann was an apprentice pharmacist in the Merck family’s Engel Pharmacy in Darmstadt. The relationship continued even after Liebig went to Munich in 1852, as Emanuel Merck went to visit his friend in the Bavarian capital in 1854.