Mikhail Semenovich Tsvet


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(1872–1919) Russian botanist

Tsvet, who was born at Asti in Italy, entered Geneva University in 1891 and followed courses in physics, chemistry, and botany. In 1896, having presented his thesis on cell physiology, he moved to the biological laboratory at St. Petersburg, where he began working on plant pigments.

Before Tsvet started applying chemical and physical methods to pigment analysis it was thought that only two pigments, chlorophyll and xanthophyll, existed in plant leaves. Following established procedures, Tsvet soon demonstrated the existence of two forms of chlorophyll. However, the isolation of pigments became a much simpler matter once he had developed, in 1900, the technique of adsorption analysis. By 1911 Tsvet had found eight different pigments.

His technique involved grinding leaves in organic solvent to extract the pigments and then washing the mixture through a vertical glass column packed with a suitable adsorptive material (e.g., powdered sucrose). The various pigments traveled at different rates through the column due to their different adsorptive properties and were therefore separated into colored bands down the column. Tsvet first described this method in 1901 and in a publication of 1906 suggested it should be called ‘chromatography’.

The technique is extremely useful in chemical analysis, being simple, quick, and sensitive, but it was not much used until the 1930s. Tsvet died when only 47 from overwork and the stress of the war, during which he was frequently transferred from one institute to another. He thus did not live to see the fruits of the wider application of chromatography in the hands of such scientists as Richard Kuhn.

Subjects: Science and Mathematics.

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