Chemist remembered largely for the “Cannizzaro reaction” and for his influential role in the atomic-weight deliberations of the Karlsruhe Congress in 1860.
Born in Palermo, Cannizzaro went to College with the intention to become a doctor, but he soon turned to the study of chemistry. In 1845 and 1846, he was in Pisa, acting as assistant to the professor of chemistry Raffaele Pirie, known for his work on slicing. He then occupied the same position in Turin.
During the Sicilian revolution of independence of 1848, Cannizzaro served as artillery officer in Messina and deputy for Francavilla di Sicilia in the Sicilian parliament. After the fall of Messina, in September 1848, he was stationed in Taormina and on the collapse of the insurgents, he escaped to France. In Paris Cannizzaro was introduced to Michel Eugène Chevreul’s laboratory where, in conjunction with F.S. Cloez made his first contribution to chemical research (1851) when they prepared cyanamide by the action of ammonia on cyanogen chloride in ethereal solution. In the same year Cannizzaro accepted an appointment at the National College of Alessandria, Piedmont, as professor of physical chemistry. In Alessandria, he discovered that aromatic aldehydes are decomposed by an alcoholic solution of potassium hydroxide into a mixture of the corresponding acid and alcohol. For example, benzaldehyde decomposes into benzoic acid and benzyl alcohol, the Cannizzaro reaction.
In the autumn of 1855, Cannizzaro became professor of chemistry at the University of Genoa and, after further professorships at Pisa and Naples, he accepted the chair of inorganic and organic chemistry at Palermo. There, he spent ten years studying aromatic compounds and continuing to work on amines, until in 1871 when he was appointed to the chair of chemistry at the University La Sapienza in Rome.
Apart from his work on organic chemistry, which includes also an investigation of santonin, Cannizzaro rendered great service to chemistry with his 1858 paper Sunto di un corso di Filosofia chimica, or Sketch of a course of chemical philosophy, in which he insisted on the distinction, previously hypothesized by Avogadro, between atomic and molecular weights. Cannizzaro showed how the atomic weights of elements contained in volatile compounds can be deduced from the molecular weights of those compounds, and how the atomic weights of elements of whose compounds the vapour densities are unknown can be determined from a knowledge of their specific heats. For these achievements, of fundamental importance to atomic theory, he was awarded the Copley Medal by the Royal Society in 1891.
In 1871, Cannizzaro’s scientific eminence secured him admission to the Italian Senate of which he was Vice-President, and as a member of the Council of Public Instruction, he rendered important services to the cause of scientific education in Italy. He is best known for his contribution to the then-existing debate over atoms, molecules, and atomic weights. He championed Amedeo Avogadro’s notion that equal volumes of gas at the same pressure and temperature held equal numbers of molecules or atoms, and the notion that equal volumes of gas could be used to calculate atomic weights. In so doing, Cannizzaro provided a new understanding of chemistry
1. Chemical Heritage Foundation, http://www.chemheritage.org/discover/online-resources/chemistry-in-history/themes/the-path-to-the-periodic-table/cannizzaro.aspx
2. Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanislao_Cannizzaro