Chemistry and Medicine in the Eighteenth Century
22-24 April 2004, Museum Boerhaave, Leiden
The first of two Anglo-Dutch Meetings was held at the Museum Boerhaave, Leiden from 22 to 24 April 2004. It was organised jointly between the Royal Society of Chemistry Historical Group, the Museum Boerhaave, the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry, the Chemiehistorische Groep van de Koninklijke Nederlandse Chemische Vereniging and the Genootschap GeWiNa. The proceedings began with a reception on Thursday evening at the Museum and the conference the following day attracted an international audience of about 80.
The morning session was chaired by Prof. Dr Ernst Homburg from the University of Maastricht and commenced with Dr Noel Coley of the Open University speaking on Eighteenth century chemical physicians and the empirical art of medicine. Dr Coley began with a description of eighteenth-century medical diagnosis and treatment as an empirical skill. Therapy was based on the ancient humoral pathology and blood-letting was a common treatment. The use of leeches and the role of medical botany were discussed as the basis for the extraction of drugs and medicines. The extension of material medica was touched on, as was the prevalence of quackery and the ridicule in which much of medicine was widely held.
How then could chemistry help to improve the quality of medicine? The problems of eighteenth century chemistry were mentioned – animal analysis by destructive distillation, the predominance of the phlogiston theory and belief in vitalism all served to hinder the utility of chemistry in medical practice. Urine analysis and the study of urinary calculi as well as the analysis of mineral waters made important contributions to eighteenth century medical chemistry, but the results were not impressive. The majority of physicians ignored the possibility that chemistry might have anything to offer medical practice. However, new entrants to the profession, trained at Leiden or Edinburgh, brought a more positive view and in Britain several young physicians, pupils of Cullen or Black, began to offer lectures on chemistry both privately and in the medical schools. Then, after the revolutionary developments derived from eighteenth-century studies in pneumatic chemistry and introduced by Lavoisier, Dalton and others, the way was cleared for the rapid expansion of clinical and medical chemistry in the nineteenth century.
The second paper entitled Some Changes in Eighteenth Century Materia Medica was delivered by Professor Harm Beukers of the University of Leiden and focussed on the development of medicinal substances in the eighteenth century. In the early seventeenth century there had been upwards of 6000 items of materia medica. Out of these fewer than 200 were derived from animal and mineral sources, with the majority originating from plants and based on the ideas of Dioscorides. Many of these galenical medicines were mixtures containing large numbers of drugs, with each hospital having its own selection. However during the eighteenth century various changes occurred. The naming of drugs began to be rationalised; the range of drugs in use was gradually reduced; pharmacopoeias, which would become statutory, began to appear; and chemistry increasingly produced drugs to replace some of the old galenicals. Additionally attempts to explain the processes of disease and how medicines acted in the body began. Taking the case of the Netherlands as an example, the speaker showed how the drugs made available for various sections of the public were carefully selected according to quality, effectiveness and cost, with cheaper ones reserved for the treatment of the poor. This selection was particularly important in the case of military medicine and Professor Beukers explained how the relevant authorities, acting upon the advice of military and naval surgeons, also carefully chose the drugs included in the medicine chests of the army and navy.
Dr Anna Simmons of the Open University delivered the next paper entitled Medicine, Monopolies and Mortars: The Pharmaceutical Trade at the Society of Apothecaries in the Eighteenth Century. Dr Simmons explained how the Society of Apothecaries is generally studied in terms of its current functions as a medical licensing corporation and livery company. However, there was a significant third strand to its activities from 1672 to 1922: the pharmaceutical trade at Apothecaries’ Hall. Following the foundation of a laboratory in 1672, this was one of the earliest establishments in England for producing drugs on a large scale. Whilst the primary function of the laboratory was to produce chemical medicines, it also played a central role in the Society’s activities, developing its role as a guarantor of drug quality, asserting its pharmaceutical authority, encouraging the chemical education of the apothecary and reasserting the Society’s precedence in drug production.
Following the foundation of the Navy Stock in 1703 and the Laboratory Stock in 1713, the Hall pharmaceutical trade developed further, with the monopolies held with the Navy and the East India Company forming the backbone of its trade. However throughout the eighteenth century the Society’s activities were influenced by the changing role of the apothecary and the evolving practices of chemistry, pharmacy and medicine. Despite these changes, the laboratory and the pharmaceutical trade remained central to the Society’s activities. The laboratory was an essential component of the Society’s reputation as a high-quality manufacturer and its production capacity was unchallenged.
The final paper in the morning session was delivered by Professor Lissa Roberts of the University of Twente and entitled Solution to Revolution. Dutch Chemistry between Science and Industry. Professor Roberts sketched a new approach to the “chemical revolution” transcending divisions between the history of science and history of technology and placed calls for chemical reform in the Netherlands in that explanatory context. She argued that whether or not individual Dutch chemists accepted the theories of the “new chemistry” as developed by Lavoisier and his colleagues, they were not in a position to follow the French drive towards standardization and dependence on quantitative measurement because of local conditions. That is, the Netherlands’ lack of centralisation precluded this form of socio-chemical reorganisation. Furthermore the Dutch generally did not follow the entrepreneurial direction of their British counterparts because of their cultural commitment to maintaining a marriage between economic and moral reform – what they called “oeconomic patriotism”. In examining the Dutch situation in this way her paper provided an interesting and novel approach to late eighteenth and nineteenth-century developments in chemistry and its relations with industry and contemporary Dutch society.
Lunch was held around the reconstructed Anatomy Theatre at the Museum Boerhaave. Whilst the GeWiNa members attended their general meeting, the other conference participants enjoyed guided tours of the Museum. Amongst the impressive exhibits seen were J.H. Van’t Hoff’s molecular models, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek’s microscope and numerous anatomical specimens.
The afternoon session was chaired by Professor Jack Betteridge, Chairman of the RSC Historical Group and commenced with a paper by Dr Rina Knoeff of the University of Maastricht entitled “…in medicine all possible good can be expected from it”. On the role of chemistry in Boerhaave’s medicine. Dr Knoeff discussed the importance of chemistry as the basis of Boerhaave’s medicine from 1710. Although far more emphasis has been placed on the mechanistic nature of Boerhaave’s medicine, than on the importance he gave to chemistry, he did not slavishly follow Newton’s attempts to reduce all the properties of matter to forces of attraction. Rather he recognised various other natural forces and in chemistry he saw the best way to discover the individual properties of natural bodies. This was crucial for understanding the workings of the human body, which led to the development and preparation of remedies. He studied body fluids and their chemical reactions, which he regarded as the basis of the movement essential to life. He ascribed many illnesses to putrefaction of the blood due to stasis, whilst diet and regimen were considered most important in maintaining health and digestion was seen as a chemical process. He also rejected the acid-alkali theory of the iatrochemists because he found so many healthy animal fluids to be neutral.
Dr Knoeff paid particular attention to how Boerhaave adopted a “Hippocratical manner” in his medicine as well as in his chemistry and showed how he focussed on detailed observations of symptoms and devotion to the patient’s well-being. In particular Boerhaave’s repetition of the Hippocratic call for the physician to follow nature as his sole guide led to chemistry (which Boerhaave considered the key to nature) becoming a central part of his medicine. Furthermore on the subject of chemistry, he emphasised that it was more important to know what it is and what it does, rather than merely to use chemical remedies.
Dr Robert Anderson of Cambridge University then delivered the recently instituted Wheeler Lecture which this year was entitled Boerhaave to Black: the evolution of chemistry teaching. Dr Anderson began by emphasising how Hermann Boerhaave (1668-1738) and Joseph Black (1728-1799) were the most widely sought-after teachers of chemistry in the eighteenth century, attracting students from Continental Europe, Russia, North America and the West Indies. Boerhaave taught medicine, botany and chemistry at Leiden University, and he in turn strongly influenced medical teaching at Edinburgh.
The Edinburgh medical school was founded in 1726 by four hand-picked young Scottish physicians who were sent to study with Boerhaave and who were later appointed professors of medicine. They advertised their course as being specifically Boerhaavian in content. Gradually during the century the systematic descriptions of drug preparation, which occupied a large part of the course, were replaced by an approach that emphasised the independence of chemistry as a subject in its own right. A new generation of teachers led by William Cullen (1710-1790) had links with an aristocracy which wanted to benefit from resources on their land, while industrial initiatives were taken by those who had attended the chemistry lectures of Cullen and Black. Although chemistry teaching had originally been intended for the benefit of medical students, the proportion of those attending who would later graduate in medicine was quite small. It is not easy to know exactly what was taught by Boerhaave and Black. The dense texts (initially pirated in Boerhaave’s case and posthumously published from inadequate jottings in Black’s) may not relate closely to what was actually being presented at the lectures. Most manuscript “student notes” were created by professional scribes. It is clear, however, that skilled demonstrations were performed and that Black revelled in his skills of showmanship.
In an era when pneumatic chemistry was so fashionable, it is fitting that the development of the eudiometer formed the subject of the closing paper, entitled The goodness of air: eudiometry as a tool in eighteenth century chemistry and medicine, which was delivered by Dr Trienke van der Spek of the Museum Boerhaave. Joseph Priestley discovered that atmospheric air is composed of different components, of which one is essential for the respiration of animals and humans. He invented a way to measure this component using “nitrous air” (nitric oxide) and suggested a relation between the “goodness” of the air thus recorded, and its healthiness. This resulted in a strong focus on the medical utility of pneumatic chemistry in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. A new type of instrument – the eudiometer – appeared in 1775, largely based on Priestley’s method to measure the “goodness” of the air. With this instrument Priestley’s contemporaries started on environmental research throughout Europe, monitoring the goodness of graveyards, sewage, factories and woods. The results of these investigations were almost immediately disputed in terms of their reliability and usefulness by certain critics. Nevertheless they also led to recommendations to improve public health and to the emergence of “pneumatic medicines”. Dr van der Spek then provided a technical description of the different kinds of eudiometers and their uses, focussing on the role that scientists such as Martinus van Marum and Jan Ingenhousz played in the application of medical eudiometry in the Netherlands.
On the Friday evening a highly successful conference dinner was held in the Restaurant Koetshuis de Burcht in the centre of Leiden and on the Saturday excursions were made to the Museum Cruquuis, the Teylers Museum and the Botanical Museum. This provided an enjoyable conclusion to the conference and we are all looking forward to the second meeting which will be held in London in autumn 2005.
Noel Coley and Anna Simmons
Chemistry at University College
10 December 2004, University College London
On 10 December 2004 the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry, with the assistance of Dr Andrea Sella, held a joint meeting with the Chemistry Department at University College, London, as part of the Department’s commemorations of the centenary of William Ramsay’s Nobel Prize for the discovery of the noble gases.
The first paper entitled “Edward Turner and Atomic Weights” was given by Dr Hasok Chang of the Department of Science and Technology Studies, University College, London. Dr Chang began by providing a brief background to the career of Edward Turner (1798-1837). Turner was the first Professor of Chemistry at University College, London (hereafter UCL) and he made a significant contribution to the debate surrounding Prout’s hypothesis, which stated that all atomic weights were integer multiples of the weight of hydrogen. Although Turner started as an uncritical follower of Thomas Thomson’s advocacy of William Prout, he produced a set of precise atomic-weight measurements that made him renounce Prout’s hypothesis and which contributed significantly to the growing scepticism about the hypothesis in Britain. Dr Chang then traced the development of Turner’s work on atomic weights through his various publications from 1825 to 1834, focusing on changes in subsequent editions of hisElements of Chemistry.
In his paper Dr Chang strongly argued against the temptation to view Turner as a positivist. Instead he considers that Turner was a strong advocate of the atomistic conception of matter and had a growing conviction of the truth of the basic elements of Dalton’s atomic theory. However, Turner did recognise a separation between facts and hypotheses, and regarded many ideas about atoms as unproven hypotheses. Dr Chang concluded by arguing that Turner’s philosophical position regarding atomism was a subtle one and needs to be investigated more carefully. This need for a more nuanced view is probably more general and led Dr Chang to call for a more refined historiography of chemical atomism.
The second paper entitled “Ethereal Chemist” was delivered by Professor Colin Russell of the Open University and Cambridge University. It examined the career of the chemist Alexander Williamson, who died one hundred years ago in 1904. Having received most of his education in France, Williamson entered the University of Heidelberg to study medicine, but was soon attracted to chemistry by the lectures of Leopold Gmelin. Concerned about the perceived lack of opportunities for chemists, Williamson’s father initially opposed his son’s change of career but eventually the son’s persistence gained his father’s approval. Williamson moved to Giessen, where he gained a PhD under Justus von Liebig, and subsequently to Paris as a kind of scientific ‘finishing school’ from 1846 to 1849. He took lessons in mathematics from the famous philosopher Auguste Comte, and in addition to meeting many distinguished French chemists, he was introduced to Thomas Graham, Professor of General Chemistry at UCL. Graham’s colleague George Fownes had recently died and Williamson was invited to apply for the vacant Chair of Practical Chemistry. Williamson’s application was successful and he was elected to the post in 1849.
Although Williamson’s first experiences at University College were mixed, the initial research that he performed there made a major contribution to chemistry. Williamson decided to explore the similarities between organic compounds by taking a simple alcohol to make a higher one. He treated ethanol with sodium and was able to replace one of the six hydrogen atoms believed to be present by one of sodium. By treating this sodium ethoxide with iodoethane he hoped to obtain a higher alcohol. Instead he found that he had produced ordinary ether. This new method of etherification became a standard reaction for the organic chemist and crucially it cast new light on matters of chemical constitution. Although a definite idea of structure lay in the future, it was becoming clear that it was possible to know the empirical formula of a compound. Professor Russell continued by explaining the importance of Williamson’s discovery for organic chemistry and how it challenged the philosophical ideas that he had learned in Paris. He also summarised Williamson’s life and work at UCL, drawing particular attention to his work with Japanese students and his controversial nature. When Williamson died in 1904 he left behind a legacy that remains with us today. He is remembered above all as a chemist associated with a single group of compounds, the ethers, and one whose philosophical training enabled him to argue and communicate as few others have done.
Dr Gerrylynn Roberts of the Open University gave the third paper entitled “UCL Chemistry Students and the British Chemical Community, 1887 to 1956”. Dr Roberts began her paper by drawing attention to a quote that appeared in the Pharmaceutical Times in 1846 which stated how science was destined to have much higher importance for mankind than it had previously attained. At this time there were two new teaching laboratories in London at the Royal College of Chemistry on Oxford Street and the Birkbeck Laboratory in Gower Street. These London institutions were introducing a new chemical pedagogy and the growth occurring in the subject at this time provides a contrast to the current closures of chemistry departments in the UK. Dr Roberts then focussed her paper on the teaching of chemistry at UCL. Teaching here was underlined by the importance of a broad general study of scientific principles in preparation for work in industry. William Ramsay, Professor of General and Inorganic Chemistry at UCL from 1887 to 1913, was a major exponent of this approach, with his career demonstrating the wide range of technical and manufacturing applications for chemistry. However, financial motivations frequently lay behind his various industrial consulting activities, as it was not until 1902 that Ramsay was freed from paying research and staff expenses out of the laboratory and lecture fees that he received.
Dr Roberts continued her paper with a quantitative study of the students pursuing chemistry at UCL, comparing them with the British chemical community in the period 1887 to 1956. Her work is part of a wider project at the Open University which uses a collective biographical approach to investigate the social history of chemistry in Britain between the 1870s and 1970s. Details of about 9,000 chemists are being collected and entered on a computer database, with currently about 4,100 records available online at www.open5.ac.uk/Arts/chemists. Dr Roberts explained how chemists included in the database have been carefully chosen either as representative samples of the membership of the principal British chemical institutions, the Chemical Society, the Institute of Chemistry and the Society for Chemical Industry, or as graduates in chemistry from UCL. Data from the project was used to demonstrate changes in the nature of chemical employment, with the increasing significance of industrial careers compared to independent consulting and the importance of overseas employment for chemists highlighted. Particular attention was given to UCL chemists, with trends in the numbers of students, the qualification level obtained and career type related to changes in the format of UCL chemistry teaching and the heads of the department during the period in question, William Ramsay, Frederick Donnan and Christopher Ingold.
The fourth paper was given by Yoshiyuki Kikuchi of the Open University and was entitled “The Impact of Chemical Education at University College London on Japanese Chemistry, Education and Industry”. This topic can be considered as an example of intercultural relations between the East and West in the history of science and has been a focus for research in Japan and other non-European countries where the Western impact was significant such as China and India. Historians of science have commonly asked the following question: do these relations comprise the ‘transfer’ or ‘spread’ of Western science in the literal sense or are they a process of interaction between Western science and indigenous cultures and societies? By adopting a similar approach, Mr Kikuchi elucidated how and to what extent UCL’s model of chemical education was transferred to Japan and whether it underwent a process of ‘acculturation’.
Most of the major events with which historians usually associate the transfer of British models of chemistry into Japan occurred after the Meiji Restoration in 1868. The introduction of chemical education in Japan by British teachers began in the early 1870s and their students went to Britain to continue their chemical studies shortly afterwards. In the first part of his paper Mr Kikuchi used his prosopographical survey to examine Anglo-Japanese scholarly relations in chemistry. Out of the 71 Japanese students identified as studying chemistry in Britain at this time, a majority (42) were enrolled at UCL. When they returned to Japan they took up positions in various sections of the Meji government as institution builders, engineers and professors.
In the second part of his paper, Mr Kikuchi discussed how Japanese students’ views on science and technology were shaped by their experiences at UCL and the impact of this on the institutionalisation of chemical education in early Meiji Japan. He highlighted the connections, via British merchants, that led Japanese students to study at UCL and examined Alexander Williamson’s role as an advisor and broker, in addition to as a chemistry professor. Mr Kikuchi also identified the UCL chemists Charles Graham (1836-1909) and Frederick Barff (1823-87) as teachers of English to Japanese students in London. Although learning English and receiving laboratory training in chemistry and physics occupied much of the Japanese students’ time, their most enjoyable experiences involved observing Western technology in use, such as occurred on an industrial tour organised by Williamson to the Britannia Ironworks in Bedford in 1865. Mr Kikuchi used this event to argue that the interaction between UCL chemical education and the Japanese students was not one-sided. In 1866 Williamson began to organise similar tours to chemical works for UCL chemistry students, indicating that some kind of cultural exchange between the East and West emerged from Japanese students’ encounter with UCL’s chemical education.
The final paper “Ramsay: The Man, the Myth and the Bicycle” was delivered by Professor Alwyn Davies of University College, London. Professor Davies explained the work which led William Ramsay to receive the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1904 for discovering a new group of the periodic table, the noble gases. Ramsay’s work built on experiments made by John Strutt, the third Lord Rayleigh, that replicated work carried out by the chemist Henry Cavendish in 1785. However it is difficult to determine the relationship between Rayleigh and Ramsay. They corresponded with each other but were both reluctant to publish their work. At the British Association meeting at Oxford in 1894 Rayleigh gave a verbal report about the new gas that had been isolated, but it was not until January 1895 that Ramsay read a paper on argon to the Royal Society and displayed a sealed tube of the gas. Ramsay was now on the trail of isolating more elements from the new group of the periodic table. However Rayleigh was no longer involved as his interests as a physicist lay elsewhere. By March 1895 Ramsay had discovered helium as a gas produced by the mineral cleveite and in 1898 he and Morris Travers (1872-1961) examined the least volatile portion of the newly available liquid air, in which they found krypton, neon and xenon.
In a brief aside Professor Davies explained the significance of the bicycle to the paper’s title. Ramsay used this method of transport to travel between his home at 12 Arundel Gardens and UCL, a journey which he recorded as taking 18 minutes. Ramsay’s choice of transport reflected his personality, with Frederick Donnan famously commenting that ‘what an ordinary, very active man would do on a Monday, Sir William Ramsay did on a Saturday afternoon’. Professor Davies highlighted the significance of Ramsay’s work for chemistry at UCL. This not only included his research achievements but also the chemists that he produced: twenty-eight professors, thirteen Fellows of the Royal Society and three Nobel Prize winners all benefited from Ramsay’s expertise. The Nobel Prize winners included Frederick Soddy who worked with Ramsay at UCL on radium emanation and together they obtained another gas, radon. This discovery completed the new group of the periodic table and underlined Ramsay’s status as a great experimenter who could design new apparatus to further the course of chemical knowledge.
As part of the commemorations of Ramsay’s Nobel Prize various artefacts such as his Nobel Prize Medal and Citation, in addition to apparatus constructed by him for his work on the noble gases were on display in the lecture theatre. At the end of Professor Davies’ lecture, the audience moved to the Slade School of Art (the former site of the UCL chemistry laboratories) where a Royal Society of Chemistry Historic Chemical Landmark Plaque was unveiled by UCL Provost Professor Malcolm Grant.