Vernadsky, Volodymyr

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Vernadsky, Volodymyr (Vladimir) [Вернадський, Володимир (Владимир); Vernads’kyj], b 12 March 1863 in Saint Petersburg, d 6 January 1945 in Moscow. Pioneering geochemist, mineralogist, and crystallographer, philosopher of science, political activist, and politician; full member of the Russian (later USSR) Academy of Sciences from 1912, the All-Ukrainian Academy of Sciences (VUAN) from 1918, and the Czechoslovak and Yugoslav academies of sciences from 1926, corresponding member of the French Academy of Sciences from 1928, and member of the Ukrainian Scientific Society in Kyiv, the Poltava Prosvita society, the Shevchenko Scientific Society, and the Volhynian Scientific Society; son of Ivan Vernadsky and father of George Vernadsky. After graduating from Saint Petersburg University (1885) he did graduate work there and in Munich and Paris (1888–9) and was elected president (1886) of the United Council of Regional Student Organizations in the Russian Empire. He taught at Moscow University (1891–1911; professor from 1898) and was a member of the Russian State Council (1906–11). Vernadsky had close genealogical, personal, and intellectual links to Ukraine. From 1889 to 1918 he spent part of nearly every summer in Poltava gubernia. In 1890 he researched the soils of Kremenchuk county as a member of Vasilii Dokuchaev's soil-science expedition.

After the February Revolution of 1917 Vernadsky chaired the Agricultural Scholarly Committee of the Russian Ministry of Agriculture, returned to Moscow University as chairman of its department of mineralogy and geology, and was appointed (in August) the Russian deputy minister of education in charge of all universities and scientific institutions. After the Bolshevik coup he fled to Ukraine. In 1918, at the behest of Mykola Vasylenko and the Hetman government, he headed the group of Ukrainian scholars that drafted the detailed project for founding the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. In 1918–19 he served as the first president of the All-Ukrainian Avademy of Sciences (VUAN), organized the VUAN chemical laboratory and Commission for the Study of Ukraine's Natural Productive Forces, was active in the geological and agricultural scholarly committees of Ukraine, and lectured at Kyiv University. Although he was a liberal supporter of the idea of ‘Russian’ unity and a vocal opponent of the Bolsheviks, Whites, and the Directory of the Ukrainian National Republic, he resigned from the Russian Constitutional Democratic (kadet) party because of the Russian chauvinism of its Ukrainian wing. In 1919, while visiting Rostov-na-Donu, he was unable to return to Ukraine and ended up in the White-controlled Crimea, where he was a professor and rector of Tavriia University in Simferopol in 1920.

In 1921 Vernadsky returned to Petrograd and organized the Radium Institute there. In 1922 he went to Paris to work with Marie Curie and lecture at the Sorbonne. In 1926 he returned to Russia, and from 1928 until his death he directed the USSR Academy of Sciences' Radium Institute and Laboratory for Geochemical Problems, the precursor of the Institute of Geochemistry and Analytical Chemistry (est 1947), in Leningrad. Under Soviet rule Vernadsky was a spokesman for preserving the academy's autonomy and for freedom of thought and travel. In the 1930s he headed the academy's new commissions on the Permafrost and Heavy Water, began the building of the first Soviet cyclotron, and oversaw the development of Soviet radiogeology and biochemistry. In 1940 he co-founded the academy's Uranium Commission and was elected its vice-chairman.

 Vernadsky's ideas became the core of new directions in geology, mineralogy, and hydrogeology, and he is regarded as the founder of Soviet geochemistry and biogeochemistry. He wrote extensively about philosophical issues in science, popularized the concepts of the biosphere and noosphere, and developed radiogeological and radiochemical concepts. Vernadsky's scholarly works include books of lectures on crystallography (1894) and mineralogy (1908), a classic study on the fundamentals of crystallography (1904), an unfinished descriptive mineralogy of the Russian Empire (vol 1, pts 2 [1909], 4–5 [1912, 1914], vol 2, pt 1 (1918]), two volumes of studies and speeches (1922), a history of the minerals of the earth's core (4 vols, 1923, 1927, 1933–4), the pioneering La Géochemie (1924) and La Biosphàere (1929), and a book of biochemical studies conducted in 1922–32 (1940). The summation of his life's work, a monograph on the chemical structure of the earth's biosphere and its surroundings, was published in censored form in 1965, 20 years after his death. Also censored were his ‘thoughts of a naturalist’ on space and time in nature and on scientific thought (2 vols, 1975).

Vernadsky has been a very popular figure in Russia and Ukraine, particularly since the 1960s. Many books and articles about him have appeared, as have posthumous Russian editions of his collected works (5 vols, 1954–5, 1959–60), selected works (1959), collected works on biogeochemistry (1967), the history of science (1981), and crystallography (1988), and writings on the history of science in Russia (1988). A Ukrainian edition of his selected works was published in Kyiv in 1969.

Balandin, R. Vladimir Vernadsky (Moscow 1982) [in English]
Shcherbak, N. Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadskii, 2nd rev edn (Kyiv 1988)
Sytnik, K.; Apanovich, E.; Stoiko, S. V.I. Vernadskii: Zhizn’ i deiatel’nost’ na Ukraine, 2nd rev edn (Kyiv 1988)
Bailes, K.E. Science and Russian Culture in an Age of Revolutions: V.I. Vernadsky and His Scientific School, 1863–1945 (Bloomington and Indianapolis 1990)
Danylenko, Viktor. Volodymyr Vernads'kyi: vikhy zhyttia i tvorchosti (Kyiv–Vinnytsia 2014)

Swiatoslaw Trofimenko

[This article originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Ukraine, vol. 5 (1993).]

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