Nikolai Zelinsky first familiarised himself with poisonous gases in 1886 when he accidentally synthesised mustard gas whilst running an experiment. He thereby became the first person to experience its most potent toxic effect. Thirty years later, when the Germans began using this substance as a chemical weapon in World War I, he invented an "antidote" — the world's first-ever gas mask.
Nikolai Dmitrievich was born in 1861 in Tiraspol. Today it is Moldavia, but then the city belonged to the Kherson province of the Russian Empire. His parents died of consumption, so relatives brought the boy up. After graduating from the Risheliev Gymnasium, he entered the faculty of physics and mathematics at Novorossiysk University.
The university's rectorate sent the young man to study in Germany at the University of Göttingen. At that time, a renowned chemist Victor Meyer worked there as head of the local laboratory. Under his guidance, Zelinsky synthesised thiophene compounds. In one of his experiments, the young man accidentally produced dichloroethyl sulphide, which at the time had no name by itself, as an intermediate in a chemical reaction. After this experience, the Fellow spent an entire semester in hospital with burns on his hands and lungs, becoming the first gas victim, later named mustard gas.
Nikolai Dmitrievich's son claims that his father had already had the idea of finding a way out of the poisonous substances. However, it came to fruition much later. The Russian chemist returned to his homeland and became a scientist. His interests were vast, but his principal investigations were devoted to petrochemistry and organic catalysis.
Thus, in 1895-1907 Zelinsky, for the first time, synthesised several cyclopentane and cyclohexane hydrocarbons. They served as a basis for the artificial modelling of oil and oil fractions. Simply put, the scientist succeeded in synthetically obtaining the hydrocarbons contained in the oil. Moreover, he did not merely solve the problem but did it brilliantly, producing more than 25 different cycloalkanes and studying their properties.
In 1910 he discovered the phenomenon of dehydrogenation catalysis (catalytic conversions of saturated hydrocarbons, resulting in the formation of unsaturated compounds by the stripping of hydrogen), which became the basis for an entire oil refining industry.
In the meantime, German and British chemists continued to work on chemical weapons.
With the First World War outbreak, the Europeans moved from theory to practice and began to apply their developments directly in battle. They started with irritant gases, but they did not have a severe traumatic effect on the enemy. Therefore soon enough, tear gases were replaced by lethal ones.
At dawn on 6 August 1915, German troops attempted to capture the Russian fortress of Osovets, located in today's Poland. They sprayed chlorine from gas-powered batteries while simultaneously firing shells containing chloropicrin at the enemy. The victims of the attack were thousands of people. The surviving soldiers, half-poisoned and disfigured, launched a counter-attack, which in military journalism was called 'the attack of the dead'. It made such an overwhelming impression on the Germans that they retreated. The Russians, with their mere appearance, threw the German troops into a panic.
It must be said that with the advent of chemical weapons came attempts to ban their use. The first attempt took place as early as 1899. Article 23 of the 1899 Hague Convention prohibited munitions, the sole intention of which was to poison the enemy. However, the existence of this prohibition had no impact on the use of chemical weapons during the First World War.
The use of chemical weapons came as a complete surprise to Russia and its allies. The Hague Convention had obliged its signatories to reject poison gas munitions and accordingly suspended the development of army gas masks. Berlin countered the accusations of violating international law by claiming that the convention prohibited the use of chemical projectiles, not gases.
A rush to produce at least some protective equipment began. At first, "wet masks" impregnated with solutions of hyposulphite and urotropine were popular. However, they proved ineffective during combat operations - they only helped against a narrow range of gases, and the impregnation often dried up. Prominent scientists were working on practical options for neutralising gases. The Germans themselves used diatomaceous earth with pumice as an adsorbent, and specialists from the Saint Petersburg Mining Institute suggested using a mixture of burnt lime with caustic soda (soda ash).
It was precisely those events that prompted Zelinsky to return to the idea of creating an "absorbent" for toxic agents. Already at that time, the chemist had heard about surviving Russian soldiers who had saved their lives by burying themselves in the ground and breathing through loose black earth or by wrapping their heads tightly around their overcoats.
He started looking for an adsorbent, which he soon found - it was decided to use activated carbon. In 1915, Nikolay Dmitrievich increased its absorption capacity by 60% in his laboratory and obtained a substance suitable for the task: 100 grams (250 cm3) had 2500 billion pores.
Nikolay Dmitrievich decided to test his invention on himself. He went into an isolated room, where the concentration of sulphurous gas was brought to such a value that it was impossible to breathe there. Zelinsky, holding a handkerchief with activated carbon wrapped over his nose and mouth, spent about 30 minutes in the room. The test was successful. A few months later, the engineer of the Triangle plant, Emond Kummant, supplemented the product with a sealed rubber mask-helmet with goggles, thus bringing it to its final form.
The gas mask was put into mass production. By the end of 1916, over 11 million such "self-rescuers" were supplied to the Russian Army. Gas masks saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and reduced casualties from poisonous substances to 0.5%. According to various data, during the First World War, about 12 thousand tons of mustard gas were used in total, from 70 to 400 thousand people suffering from it. All in all, dozens of different chemical agents were sprayed on the fronts.
After the First World War, Zelinsky returned to petrochemistry. He developed a method of obtaining gasoline by cracking diesel oil and crude oil with aluminium chloride and aluminium bromide, which allowed the USSR to provide fuel on an industrial scale. He played a crucial role in improving aviation gasoline and lubricating oils quality by developing a process that made it possible to obtain fuel with a high octane number. Primarily to Nikolay Dmitrievich's research, it became possible to use it as a raw material for high-octane motor fuel and high-quality lubricating oils in liquid and solid fuels such as coal and oil shale and peat.
But the chemist considered his most significant achievement to have been the gas mask that saved the lives of at least hundreds of thousands of people. He refused to patent his invention, believing that he could not profit from human misfortune, and Russia transferred the right to manufacture it to the Allies.