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Andrés Manuel del Río

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Subject: Vanadium, History of science and technology in Mexico, List of chemical elements naming controversies, Spanish immigration to Mexico, 1801 in science
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Andrés Manuel del Río

Andrés Manuel del Río
Andrés Manuel del Río
Born (1764-11-10)10 November 1764
Died 23 March 1849(1849-03-23) (aged 84)
Mexico City
Nationality Spanish-Mexican
Fields natural history
Alma mater University of Alcalá de Henares
Known for vanadium
Influences Jean Darcet
Antoine Lavoisier
René Just Haüy

Andrés Manuel del Río Fernández (10 November 1764 – 23 March 1849) was a SpanishMexican scientist and naturalist who discovered compounds of vanadium in 1801.


Andrés del Río studied analytical chemistry and metallurgy in Spain, where he was born. He received his bachelor's degree from the University of Alcalá de Henares in 1780. The government gave him a scholarship to enter the School of Mines in Almadén, Spain, where he showed great aptitude. Later he moved to Paris, where he studied under the chemist Jean Darcet. He continued his studies in Freiberg, Germany, under the direction of Abraham Gottlob Werner. In Freiberg he got to know Baron Alexander von Humboldt. He then returned to Paris as a student of Antoine Lavoisier. During the French Revolution Lavoisier, considered the founder of modern chemistry, was executed on the guillotine. Del Río was forced to flee to England. He also collaborated with Abbé René Just Haüy, considered the founder of crystallography.

Mining in New Spain

In 1792, the Real Seminario de Minería (College of Mines) was founded in New Spain by a decree of King Charles III of Spain, with the object of reforming the study of mining and metallurgy in the colony. The institution was initially headed by Fausto Elhúyar (1755–1833), the discoverer of tungsten. The young del Río was named to the chair of chemistry and mineralogy. Del Río arrived at the port of Veracruz on 20 October 1794, on the ship San Francisco de Alcántara out of Cádiz.

Once in his new position, del Río dedicated himself to teaching and scientific investigation. On 17 April 1795 he opened the first course in mineralogy ever presented in New Spain. He made important studies of minerals and developed innovative methods in mining. In Mexico he collaborated with the German naturalist Baron Alexander von Humboldt. Humboldt was impressed with del Río, and wrote "It is in Mexico where the best work of mineralogy in Spanish has been published, the Elementos de Orictognosia of Señor Del Rio." In fact, this was the first book of mineralogy published anywhere in America. Humboldt was an active participant in the investigations of the College of Mining. He organized excursions to Chapultepec, to the basaltic zone of Pedregal de Xitle, and to Peñón de los Baños, accumulating data and samples of minerals and rocks that were then submitted to chemical tests for identification.

In 1820 del Río was named a deputy to the Spanish Cortes. He was a liberal who argued for the independence of New Spain. He was in Madrid when Mexico gained its independence. Invited to remain in Spain, he nevertheless returned to Mexico (in 1821), which he considered his homeland.

In 1829, after the turbulent period of war with Spain, the government of independent Mexico expelled the Spaniards resident in the country, with some notable exceptions. Del Río was one of the exceptions. The expulsion had a major impact on the work of the College of Mining. The director, Fausto Elhúyar, was forced to resign and leave the country. Indignant over the expulsion of his colleagues, del Río showed solidarity by himself entering voluntary exile in Philadelphia. There he was highly honored, and his book was published in another edition. He returned to Mexico in 1834 and again occupied the chair of mineralogy at the College.

The discovery of vanadium

Vanadium is not found in the native state, but is present in minerals such as vanadinite, Pb5(VO4)3Cl.

In 1803, while examining mineral samples sent to him by the Purísima del Cardenal mine in Zimapán in the state of Hidalgo, del Río arrived at the conclusion that he had found a new metallic element. He prepared various compounds of the element, and observing their diverse colors, he named the element pancromium. Later, on observing that the compounds changed color to red on heating, he substituted the name eritronium for the element. (Eritros means red in Greek.) The following year he gave samples containing the new element to Alexander von Humboldt, who sent them on to Hippolyte Victor Collet-Descotils in París for his analysis. Collet-Descotils's analysis found (mistakenly) that the samples contained only chromium. Humboldt, in turn, rejected del Río's claim of the discovery of a new element, and del Río himself concluded his discovery had been an error.

In 1830, 29 years after its initial discovery, Professor George William Featherstonhaugh proposed without success that the element should be named rionium, in honor of its original discoverer.

In 1867 the English chemist Henry Enfield Roscoe isolated the pure metal for the first time. He used hydrogen to get rid of the chloride around the pure vanadium.

Later life

In 1805 del Río established an ironworks at Coalcomán. After overcoming numerous obstacles, he produced the first iron in Mexico, on 29 April 1807. Four years later, during the Mexican war of independence, the royalists destroyed the ironworks. The iron he produced was superior to the celebrated imported iron from Biscay, Spain.

He was bitter about Humboldt's mistake in not confirming the discovery of vanadium, and strongly reproached him. He continued to teach at the College of Mines until his death, a course that "could well have been taught at the Polytechnic school in Paris", according to Michel Chevalier, who visited del Río shortly before the latter's death.

Death and recognition

Palacio de Mineria, Mexico City

Andrés Manuel del Río died at 84 in 1825, after a long and productive academic career. His work and his liberal politics were important to the building of an independent Mexican nation. He was a founding member of the College of Mines, and laid the base for the current Institute of Geology of the University of Mexico. He was a member of the Royal Academy of Sciences in Madrid, The Wernerian Natural History Society of Edinburgh, the Royal Academy of Sciences of France, the Economic Society of Leipzig, the Linnean Society of Leipzig, the Royal Academy of Saxony and the Philosophical Society of Philadelphia. He was also president of the Geological Society of Philadelphia and the Lyceum of Natural History of New York.

His extensive scientific work, besides the first identification of vanadium, included the discovery and description of various minerals and the invention of methods of extraction of minerals for use in the mining industry. After his death, the important mining district that includes Batopilas in Chihuahua was named in his honor.

A sample of vanadium

The Chemical Society of Mexico instituted the prestigious National Chemistry Prize "Andrés Manuel Del Río" in 1964, with the object of giving public recognition to the work done by chemical professionals who have made extraordinary contributions to raise the level and prestige of the profession. It is awarded with a medal containing the

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