L to R: Neil MacGregor, Bill Bryson, Claire Walker, Huw Edwards. Credit: The National Churches Trust from London (CC
Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleyev was born in 1834 at Tobolsk, in the far west of Siberia, into a well-educated, reasonably prosperous, and very large family—so large, in fact, that history has lost track of exactly how many Mendeleyevs there were: some sources say there were fourteen children, some say seventeen. All agree, at any rate, that Dmitri was the youngest. Luck was not always with the Mendeleyevs. When Dmitri was small his father, the headmaster of a local school, went blind and his mother had to go out to work. Clearly an extraordinary woman, she eventually became the manager of a successful glass factory. All went well until 1848, when the factory burned down and the family was reduced to penury. Determined to get her youngest child an education, the indomitable Mrs. Mendeleyev hitchhiked with young Dmitri four thousand miles to St. Petersburg—that's equivalent to traveling from London to Equatorial Guinea—and deposited him at the Institute of Pedagogy [now Herzen State Pedagogical University]. Worn out by her efforts, she died soon after. Mendeleyev dutifully completed his studies and eventually landed a position at the local university.