Johan Gadolin became an expert in the chemistry of the elements known as the lanthanide series of elements. From 1775 to 1779 he studied mathematics, then chemistry, in Åbo, Finland. From 1779 to 1782 he studied chemistry in Uppsala, Sweden. He received a master of science degree at the age of twenty-two, in 1782. During his Uppsala years he became friends with the Swedish chemists Carl Wilhelm Scheele (1742–1786) and Johan Gottlieb Gahn (1745–1818).
In 1786 he undertook a "grand tour" of Denmark, Germany, Holland, England, and Ireland. In Germany he met Lorenz Crell (1744–1816), the editor of the journal Chemische Annalen. They became friends, and it was in Crell's journal that many of Gadolin's research papers were eventually published in an international forum. In Ireland Gadolin worked with the Irish chemists Adair Crawford (1748–1795) and Richard Kirwan (1733–1812), investigating specific heat capacities and specific latent heats. After his return to Finland, Gadolin continued to his work in this area.
Gadolin is recognized for having discovered the element yttrium in 1794. He had been studying a black mineral that had been found by Karl Axel Arrhenius (1757–1824) in Ytterby, Sweden. The mineral was eventually named gadolinite. Working with the mineral, Gadolin was able to isolate an oxide substance (apparently the oxide of a new element) that was later named yttria. The existence of the new element, yttrium, was eventually confirmed.
In 1880 the French chemist Jean-Charles-Galissard de Marignac (1817–1894) studied samples of erbium metal that had been extracted from gadolinite. He discovered that the erbium metal contained minute amounts of a second metal. He named the metal (and the element) gadolinium, after the mineral.
From 1785 to 1822 Gadolin was a professor of chemistry at the university in Åbo (formerly the Academy of Turku). He believed that students should learn chemistry by working in a laboratory and he enunciated that belief. Because the laboratory at the university was unsatisfactory, he built his own and invited his students to work there.
Gadolin added to the university's reputation, and when offered a chair at the university of Göttingen in Germany, he declined. Gadolin took part in the collective life of his motherland. Johan Gadolin is part of the Finnish national identity.
Alho, Olli, ed. (1997). Finland: A Cultural Encyclopedia. Helsinki: Finnish Literature Society.