Firebrand Infrastructures: Insights from the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry Postgraduate Workshop

by guest contributor Alison McManus 

For less populated fields of history, a conference designed for intellectual exchange can occasionally double as an existence proof. The workshop for the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry must have appeared to serve that double function when, during the concluding remarks, attendees addressed the question, “Why does the academy no longer advertise for historians of chemistry?” While I cannot dispute the relative lack of job searches that cater specifically to my chosen field, I will note the impression of that field I gleaned from this month’s SHAC workshop was anything but obscurity. To the contrary, my impression was one of robust materiality, critical for historical studies of science and of biology in particular.

Perhaps reflecting Europe’s special relationship with alchemy, the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry held its first seven Postgraduate Workshops on the East side of the Atlantic. The eighth annual workshop was held in the United States for the first time on December 1st and 2nd at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia. This year’s workshop was titled “(Al)Chemical Laboratories: Imagining and Creating Scientific Work-Spaces.” As a graduate student, I was fortunate to attend the second day of the workshop, which emphasized chemistry in the 20th century. Focusing on materials, practices, and infrastructure, the SHAC workshop demonstrated the utility of fine-grained technical attention in the history of chemistry. Anchored in physical detail, the history of chemistry came alive through an alchemical demonstration, and when paired with the history of 20th-century biology, it imbued grander narratives of development with much-needed empirical nuance.

In historical studies of science, the relationship between 20th-century chemistry and biology has taken a variety of forms, few of which have been favorable for the former discipline. In Lavoisier and the Chemistry of Life (1987), Frederic Lawrence Holmes famously attributed Lavoisier’s chemical system to the influence of biological theories of respiration. Given Lavoisier’s foundational role in modern chemistry, Holmes implicitly recognized biology as the progenitor of modern chemistry itself. At SHAC, keynote speaker Angela Creager (Princeton) advocated a reversal of this causality. Her address and upcoming Ambix paper, “A Chemical Reaction to the History of Biology,” began with a simple observation: historians of science write the history of 20th century biology in one of three ways, as the story of genetics, of evolution, or of the neo-Darwinian synthesis of the two. Creager characterized Ernst Mayr’s The Growth of Biological Thought (1985) as a founding example of the third genre, in which genetics offers a mechanism to reconcile Mendelian heredity with Darwinian natural selection.

Drawing from scholars such as Vasiliki Smocovitis and Joe Cain, Creager suggested that teleological narratives of synthesis marginalize biological fields less preoccupied with issues of heredity, including physiology, ecology, and endocrinology. Such an historiographical oversight may be political in origin; biological subdisciplines further afield from evolutionary theory simply lack comparable socio-political clout. Here chemistry offers a solution. By focusing on material practices and laboratory infrastructure, Creager illuminated the “cryptic centrality” of chemistry to 20th century biology, at once reversing Holmes’s causal account and expanding the list of relevant biological subdisciplines beyond genetics and evolutionary theory. In line with her earlier work on radioisotopes, Creager recounted the story of G. Evelyn Hutchinson’s 1940s limnological experiments, in which radioisotopes enabled the study of phosphorus cycling in pond ecosystems. The centrality of chemical infrastructure to Hutchinson’s experiments suggested that chemistry did not merely act as cousin or offspring of 20th-century biology but rather allowed it new tools for making sense of life.

Appropriately, the final panel at SHAC featured two scholars working outside genetics and evolutionary biology. Gina Surita (Princeton) discussed Elwood V. Jensen’s discovery of the estrogen receptor, and CHF Fellow Lijing Jiang presented her research on Socialist China’s race to synthesize insulin during the Great Leap Forward. Juxtaposed with Creager’s keynote address, Jiang’s research lent the impression that the story of neo-Darwinian synthesis may resonate rather little with Chinese histories of 20th century biology. Due to the influence of Lysenkoism in Socialist China, the Insulin Project coincided with a ban on genetic engineering. Thus a high-profile research campaign operated in the absence of one major element of the historiographical canon.

alison mcmanus piece_alchemy

The final step of Jennifer Rampling’s and Lawrence Principe’s alchemical demonstration, in which the “gliding fire” corresponds to the gradual oxidation of lead. Image courtesy of Angela Creager.

The workshop concluded with a joint alchemical talk and presentation by Jennifer Rampling (Princeton) and Lawrence Principe (Johns Hopkins). Together with William Newman, Principe pioneered the genre of alchemical reenactment in the late 1980s and early 1990s. When applied to alchemical manuscripts, his chemical training has elucidated the central role of contaminants in the success of alchemical experiments, and in so doing, it has cast alchemy as an experimental rather than wholly imaginative field. Taking textual correspondence to reality as a given, Principe and Rampling sought to recreate Sam Norton’s 16th-century alchemical synthesis of the “vegetable stone,” a substance widely revered for its life-giving properties. Successful replication depended upon both historical and chemical expertise. Rampling recently demonstrated that an essential ingredient known to the alchemists as “sericon” in fact represented two possible ingredients, red lead and antimony, depending upon the age of the alchemical recipe. These components were identified by tracing the recipe’s historical origins. Likewise, Principe’s knowledge of silver refining suggested that copper was an essential contaminant that allowed the recipe to proceed as described.

Experiencing an alchemical reenactment was an exercise in humility. While I cannot attest to the reinvigorating properties of the “vegetable stone” (such claims must surely be relegated to the realm of alchemists’ imaginations), I was nonetheless struck by the correspondence between textual description and my own empirical observations. Sam Norton’s seemingly imaginative claim that “Fire will glide” through grey feces in the final step mapped quite reasonably onto the oxidation of lead, in which patches of bright orange and yellow lead (II, IV) oxide expanded slowly across grey powder. Furthermore, Principe was quick to emphasize a central problem in alchemical reenactments, namely the issue of accounting for failed replication. A gap between historical text and contemporary practice may reflect a misleading claim by the alchemist, but alternately, one may fault the modern experimenter’s chemical and historical competence. Nevertheless, relentless experimentation with material alchemy offers a means to close the gap.


At the conclusion of the workshop, I found myself attempting to reconcile a dissonance between the status of the discipline and the expository and corrective work underway within it. I now wonder to what extent that dissonance might itself be productive. During the SHAC workshop, the material history of chemistry operated both for its own sake and as a much-needed auxiliary to the history of biology. Surely, scholars working in the history of chemistry may yet expect to search for jobs defined primarily by period or region. Still, I might suggest that the lack of “historian of chemistry” jobs is far more pertinent to academics’ self-fashioning than the ranking of the field’s relevance. In providing infrastructure to 20th-century biology, the discipline of chemistry at once makes itself essential and leaves itself vulnerable to being overlooked. Restoring attention to these infrastructural elements enables the more modest field to issue a correction from below. In this sense, might humble fields be particularly insightful ones?

Alison McManus is a PhD student in History of Science at Princeton University, where she studies 20th century chemical sciences. She is particularly interested in the development and deployment of chemical weapons technologies.

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