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Research on chemistry's history guides coursework for today's undergrads

Lawrence Principe examines roots of study of chemistry

Lawrence Principe

Principe found that 18th century chemists were developing crucial experimental methodologies.


June 5, 2015

A decade ago in a cramped archive in St. Petersburg, Russia, Lawrence Principe opened the leather-bound volume for the first time, not knowing what he was going to find. He had negotiated for five years just for the opportunity to take a look, then traveled thousands of miles. But it only took an instant for him to realize he was holding a real historical treasure.

As he pored through its pages, "the rest of the room and the people in it just disappeared," he recalls.

Principe, who teaches the history of science and organic chemistry at the Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, is both a chemist and a historian with a passion to know more about the origins of chemistry; in particular, its transformation from the not-so-respected field of alchemy--which largely involved attempts to change base metals into gold--to today's chemistry, which influences virtually every product consumers use.

He believes it is important "to know where our knowledge comes from, how it develops, and why people decided to do certain things that became the basis for the sciences," he says.

On that June day in 2005, he found a manuscript that had vanished in the early 18th century. Its author, Wilhelm Homberg, was chief chemist of the Académie Royale des Sciences (the French Royal Academy of Sciences) starting in 1691, while alchemy and chemistry were not yet separate pursuits. He had written the definitive story of his life's work, "The Elements of Chemistry," before he died in 1715, but it had never been published.

Principe knew that if it still existed, and he could find it, the book would provide a wealth of material for his research.

What happened was partly good fortune.

"A colleague of mine had been to this particular archive and mentioned to me that he had seen Homberg's name," Principe says. "I had to go to Russia to find out what that document was. I went on a hunch."

It was a hunch that paid off.

"When I got there, it turned out to be much better than I'd hoped for," says Principe, Drew Professor of the Humanities at Hopkins and director of its Singleton Center for the Study of Premodern Europe, noting that the volume contained both the chemist's first draft in addition to his final draft, written 20 years apart.

"He was an incredibly meticulous and careful experimenter who worked to create a comprehensive explanatory system for chemistry," Principe says. "Even though he may have started with some assumptions about matter that we would recognize as wrong today from our modern level of knowledge, what remains remarkable is the logical and sophisticated experimental research program he undertook in order to develop his ideas."

The manuscript ended up in the Boerhaave archive in St. Petersburg after someone apparently sent it in the early 18th Century to Herman Boerhaave, a world famous Dutch chemist "who thought very highly of Homberg's work," Principe says. When Boerhaave died, his papers went to his nephew, who later became physician to the Czar. When he went to Russia, he took his uncle's papers with him.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) supported Principe's historical research through a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award he received in 2000. The award supports junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education, and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organization. The NSF provided him with $275,000 over six years.

More recently, he received a prestigious fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, which annually supports a diverse group of scholars, artists and scientists chosen on the basis of prior achievement and exceptional promise. He plans to complete the work he started under the CAREER grant with his Guggenheim and write a book, "The Transmutations of Chemistry," describing chemistry's evolution from a practice regarded as "dirty, smelly and possibly deceitful because it made things look like what they weren't," to the important and respectable field it has become today.

Before the 18th century, "there was a widespread lack of trust in what chemists were up to," he says. "Practitioners of alchemy argued that they could make natural products artificially that were better than the real thing. On the other hand, some people argued that these practitioners were making something fake, and not natural."

He believes the turnaround in chemistry's public image began with the French Academy, founded in 1666 with support from King Louis XIV and the French government.

"It was the first place where there was a permanent and established position for chemists in an official government institution," Principe says.

Academy scientists received government stipends to conduct their work, including chemists. "The King even paid for a chemical laboratory to be constructed," Principe says, adding that even after Louis XIV died in 1715, his successors continued to fund the academy.

It took more than half a century, but the Academy administrators worked hard to reverse chemistry's bad name by repudiating many of its past activities; for example, trying to turn base metals into gold, stressing that its chemists were working on worthier issues, such as medicine.

"What they did was try to say that what the academy was doing now was separate from the kind of chemistry that was done before," he says.

Great chemists of the time emerged from the academy, including Homberg, as well as Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, best known for discovering the role oxygen plays in combustion and who, in fact, recognized and named both oxygen and hydrogen.

"The administrators of the academy made it look as if this new kind of chemistry emerged out of nothing at the beginning of the 18th century by cutting their ties with the past," Principe says. "But all the time they were repudiating alchemy, the chemists in the academy continued to pursue it.

"The crucial thing, however, is that while we today might not think the transmutation of metals is possible, these chemists developed experimental methodologies and discovered many things crucial for the theoretical and practical foundations of chemistry; for example, discovering the properties of materials, how to work with and transform them, and how we can produce new substances," he adds.

Principe traveled to 10 countries to conduct his research, initially trying to track down information about Homberg, and culminating with his find in St. Petersburg. He plans to use the 300-year-old document as the "narrative spine" of his forthcoming book, although he expects to branch off into additional critical questions about the development of chemistry during that period.

The goal is to "unmask what is appearance and what is reality in the history of chemistry," he says.

--  Marlene Cimons, National Science Foundation
--  Maria C. Zacharias, (703) 292-8454 mzachari@nsf.gov