February marks 100 years since invention of polarography

Jaroslav Heyrovský

This February marks one hundred years since the invention of polarography, a pioneering method analysing substances in solutions, developed by Czech chemist Jaroslav Heyrovský. More than thirty years after his discovery, he was awarded the Nobel Prize, becoming the first Czech to receive the honour.

Polarography originated in 1922, when Jaroslav Heyrovský published a paper on the electric current passing through a mercury drop electrode.

The electromechanical method is based on the relationship between an increasing current passing through a solution and the increasing voltage used to produce the current, and is used to analyse the types of substances in solutions as well as their quantities.

Two years later, Heyrovský created the first polarograph, together with the Japanese chemist Masuzo Shikata. It was an instrument that could record data automatically, and in great detail, as he described to Czech Radio:

“This modified polarographic method can be used to analyse a solution quickly, accurately and sensitively. It determined the traces of substances present in the solution at a dilution of one in a million. For example, in one drop of blood, one ten-millionth of a gram of lead.”

Jaroslav Heyrovský | Photo: Czech Academy of Sciences

Subsequently, polarography began to be used in various industries to determine the composition of raw materials or products. It has been applied not only in medicine, but also in the food industry.

More than 30 years after his invention, in 1959, Jaroslav Heyrovský won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery. Swedish Professor Arne Ölander gave a speech - in the laureate’s native language, as is customary.

“Professor Heyrovsky. You are the originator of one of the most important methods of contemporary chemical analysis. Your instrument is extremely simple, only falling droplets of mercury, but you and your collaborators have shown that it can be used for the most diverse purposes.“

Jaroslav Heyrovsky has influenced generations of scientists around the world. Those who worked with him personally appreciate not only his professional skills but also his humanity.

One of them is Lubomír Pospíšil, who worked with Heyrovský in the lab in 1963. He described his experience in a recording for the Czech Academy of Sciences:

“What I cherish, as a legacy from Professor Heyrovský, is the spirit of the laboratory and the friendly atmosphere that prevailed there. I always say that students are like their teacher. Professor Heyrovský had a quote by Michael Faraday posted in his lab: 'Work, Finish Publish.'"

Today, the Institute of Physical Chemistry of the Czech Academy of Sciences is named after Jaroslav Heyrovský, and experts from all corners of the planet have drawn on his ideas.

For instance, glucometers or probes adjusting the air-fuel ratio in engines, that are being used today, are based on Professor Heyrovsky's 100-year-old discovery.