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history of chemistry

In a moment of curiosity, I wanted to look into the history of biochemistry as a science. I found that the first enzymes were discovered in the early 1800s, though enzymes as a class weren't recognized till around 1900—it was believed for a long time that only the vital force inside living organisms could do things like turning sugar into alcohol. But more strikingly, I learned about the origin of the concepts of catalysis.

There was a woman named Elizabeth Fulhame, the wife of a Scots physician. We don't know if she herself was Scots; in fact we know very little about her, not even her dates of birth and death, apparently. But in 1780, she began doing research on the process of combustion, and on methods for coating fabric with layers of precious metal. In 1794, she published a book on her work, An Essay On Combustion with a View to a New Art of Dying and Painting, wherein the Phlogistic and Antiphlogistic Hypotheses are Proved Erroneous. In it, she described a process where burning substances in contact with water acquired an oxygen atom from the water, releasing hydrogen, which then took on oxygen from the air and formed a new water molecule. This is apparently the first description of a catalytic process, more than 40 years before Berzelius coined the word.

Fulhame actually gained recognition in her own time; in 1810 she was elected an honorary member of the Philadelphia Chemical Society, and Count Rumford praised her work. But she seems to have fallen into obscurity for a long time after that; she certainly wasn't mentioned in my courses in chemistry and biochemistry. But I'm glad to have learned about her now. And I like the spirit of her key statement about her work:

Persuaded that we are not to be deterred from the investigation of truth by any authority, however great, and that every opinion must stand or fall by its own merits, I venture with diffidence to offer mine to the world, willing to relinquish it, as soon as a more rational appears.


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 19th, 2016 10:01 pm (UTC)
That's a marvelous quote.
Apr. 20th, 2016 03:40 am (UTC)
Fascinating. Her "mission statement" is a model of rationality that many in our day could profitably study and emulate.
Apr. 20th, 2016 03:44 am (UTC)
When I read things from the eighteenth century (at least from English-speaking countries) I'm often struck by that sense of greater rationality and integrity. A few years ago I read James Madison's minutes of the debates about the Constitution of the United States, and I came away thinking that even the second-rate participants, the ones whose names you aren't likely to recognize unless you're a professional historian of the period, were giants in comparison with any modern American political figure.
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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