Despite the occasional tidyings-up, chemistry by the second half of the nineteenth century was in something of a mess, which is why everybody was so pleased by the rise to prominence in 1869 of an odd and crazed-looking professor at the University of St. Petersburg named Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleyev.
Mendeleyev (also sometimes spelled Mendeleev or Mendeléef) was born in 1834 at Tobolsk, in the far west of Siberia, into a well-educated, reasonably prosperous, and very large family—so large, in fact, that history has lost track of exactly how many Mendeleyevs there were: some sources say there were fourteen children, some say seventeen. All agree, at any rate, that Dmitri was the youngest. Luck was not always with the Mendeleyevs. When Dmitri was small his father, the headmaster of a local school, went blind andhis mother had to go out to work. Clearly an extraordinary woman, she eventually became the manager of asuccessful glass factory. All went well until 1848, when the factory burned down and the family was reduced to penury. Determined to get her youngest child an education, the indomitable Mrs. Mendeleyev hitchhiked with young Dmitri four thousand miles to St.Petersburg—that's equivalent to traveling from Londonto Equatorial Guinea—and deposited him at the Institute of Pedagogy. Worn out by her efforts, she died soon after.