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Andrés Manuel del Río


Andrés Manuel del Río Fernández (Madrid, November 10, 1764 — Mexico City, March 23, 1849) was a Spanish–Mexican scientist and naturalist who discovered the chemical element vanadium.



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 October 20, 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 April 17, 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


In 1801, while examining mineral samples sent to him by the Purísima del Cardenal mine in Zimapán in the state of Mexico, del Río arrived at the conclusion that he had found a new metallic element. He prepared various of its compounds, 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 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 Nils Gabriel Sefström of Sweden rediscovered the element. He gave it its current name, vanadium, in honor of the Scandinavian goddess of love and beauty, Vanadis. In the same year, Friedrich Wöhler, the German chemist who had synthesized urea, analyzed some of del Río's samples and proved that vanadium and eritronium were the same. Later the U.S. geologist 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.

Later life

In 1805 del Río established an ironworks at Coalcomán. After overcoming numerous obstacles, he produced the first iron in Mexico, on April 29, 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 Vizcaya, 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


Andrés Manuel del Río died at 84 in 1849, 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.


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 likeness of del Río and a commemorative plaque.

When he died, he left his family a famous name, many debts, and some copies of his Elementos de orictogonosia (1804), which he had been unable to sell.

Andrés Manuel Del Río, Luis E. Miramontes, inventor of the first oral contraceptive, and Mario J. Molina, winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1995, are the three Mexican chemists of outstanding world significance. Miramontes won the "Andrés Manuel Del Río" Prize in 1986.

Selected scientific works


  • Elementos de Orictognesia o del conocimiento de los fósiles, prepared for use in the Real Seminario de Mineria de México, 1795.
  • Analyse des deus nouvelles espéces minérales composées de séléniure de zinc et de sulfure de mercure. Annals des Mines, Paris, 5, 1829.
  • Découverte de l´iodure de mercure au Mexique. Annals des Mines, Paris, 5, 1829.
  • Elementos de Orictognesia, o del conocimiento de los fósiles según el sistema de Bercelio; y según los principios de Abraham Góttlob Wérner, con la sinonimia inglesa, alemana y francesa, para uso del Seminario Nacional de Minería de México. Philadelphia, 1832.


  • (Spanish) "Río, Andrés Manuel del," Enciclopedia de México, v. 12. Mexico City, 1987.
  • (Spanish) Alessio Robles, Vito. El ilustre maestro Andrés Manuel del Río. Mexico City, 1937. 31 p.
  • (Spanish) Arnaiz y Freg, Arturo. Andrés Manuel del Río: Estudio biográfico. Mexico City: Casino Español de México, 1936.
  • (Spanish) Arnaiz y Freg, Arturo. Don Andrés del Río, descubrimiento del Eritronio (Vanadio). Mexico City: Cultura, 1948. 44 p.
  • (Spanish) Prieto, Carlos et al. Andrés Manuel del Río y su obra científica: Segundo centenario de su natalicio, 1764-1964. México: Compañía Fundidora de Fierro y Acero de Monterrey, 1966. 81 p.
  • (Spanish) Ramírez, Santiago E. Biografía del sr. D. Andrés Manuel del Río: Primer catedrático de mineralogía del Colegio de Minería. México: Imp. del Sagrado Corazón de Jesús, 1891. 56 p.
  • (Spanish) Ramírez, Santiago. Ensayos biográficos de Joaquín Velásquez de León y Andrés Manuel del Río. México: UNAM, Facultad de Ingeniería, Sociedad de ex-alumnos, 1983.
  • (Spanish) Rojo, Onofre. La prioridad en los descubrimientos y su relación con la infraestructura científica. Avance y Perspectiva 20: 107-111 (1997). ISSN: 0185-1411.

A short biography of Andrés Manuel del Río is found in "Oxford Dictionary of Scientists" by Oxford University Press, 1999.

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Andrés_Manuel_del_Río". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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