History and myth
This is my Crucible column for the January issue of Chemistry World: more on why scientists rarely make good historians.
The history of chemistry is a discipline founded by chemists. After all, in the days before the history of science was a recognized field of academic toil, who else would have been interested in the origins of chemistry except those who now help it bear fruit? Marcellin Berthelot was one of the first to take alchemy seriously, translating ancient manuscripts and arguing that its apparent fool’s quest for gold led to useful discoveries. J. R. Partington, often considered a founding father of the modern study of chemical history, was a research chemist at Manchester and then at Queen Mary College, where another chemist, Frank Sherwood Taylor, founded the history-of-chemistry journal Ambix in 1937.
Things are different today – and not everyone is happy about it. The history of science has become as professionalized as any branch of science itself, and is therefore likewise answerable to standards of specialized expertise that leave scant room for the amateur. As a result, some chemists who enjoy exploring the lives and works of their predecessors can feel excluded from their own past, undermined and over-ruled by historians who have their own methods, norms and agendas and yet who have perhaps never held a test-tube. Conversely, those historians may end up despairing at the over-simplified narratives that practising chemists want to tell, at their naïve attachment to the founding myths of their discipline and their determination to filter the past through the lens of the present. In short, chemists and historians of chemistry don’t always see eye to eye.
That much is clear from the comments of Peter Morris in the latest issue of Ambix , from the editorship of which he has just stepped down after a decade in the position. (His successor is Jennifer Rampling of the University of Cambridge.) Morris is measured and diplomatic in his remarks, but his role has evidently not been an easy one. “It is unfortunate that the last three or four decades have witnessed a separation (but not yet a divorce) between historians and chemist-historians”, he says, defining the latter as practising chemists who write history. This separation is evident from the way that, while articles in Ambix come mostly from historians, several chemistry journals, such as Angewandte Chemie and the Journal of Chemical Education, sometimes publish (or at least once did) historical pieces from chemist-historians. The editors of such journals, says Morris, rarely ask historians to write such pieces, perhaps because they don’t know any, or perhaps because they “are fearful that the professionals will transgress against the standard foundation history accepted by the scientists.”
That’s a killer punch. In other words, Morris is saying that chemists fiercely defend their myths against those who dare weigh them against the evidence. For example, Morris says that an article in Ambix  challenging the stock account of how Wöhler’s synthesis of urea vanquished vitalism and began organic chemistry has probably done little to dislodge this widely held belief. Some chemists doubtless still prefer the fairy tale offered in Bernard Jaffe’s Crucibles: The Story of Chemistry: “About one hundred and fifty years ago an epoch-making event took place in the laboratory of a young German still in his twenties…”
Chemists aren’t unique among scientists in displaying a certain antipathy to ‘outsiders’ deigning to dismantle their cherished fables. But at face value, it seems odd that a group who recognize a culture of expertise and value facts should resist the authority of those who actually go back to the sources and examine the past. Why should this be? In part, it merely reflects the strong Whiggish streak that infuses science, according to which the purpose of history is not to understand the past so much as to explain how we got to the present. This attitude, says Morris, is evident in the way that many chemist-historians will accept only the chemical literature as the authoritative text on history – not the secondary literature that contextualizes such (highly stylized) accounts, not the social, political or economic setting. And while for historians it is often highly revealing to examine what past scientists got wrong, for scientists those are just discredited ideas and therefore so much rubbish to be swept aside.
But, as Morris stresses, not all chemist-historians think this way, and what sometimes hinders them is simply a lack of historical training: of how to assemble a sound historical argument. The trouble is, they may not be interested in acquiring it. “Many chemists, although by no means all, are loathe to take instruction from historians, whom they perceive as being non-chemists”, he says. They might write jargon-strewn, ploddingly chronological papers with no thesis or argument, and refuse to alter a word on the advice of historians. That kind of intellectual arrogance will only widen the divide.
Morris expresses optimism that “with good will and mutual understanding” the breach can be healed. Let’s hope so, because every chemistry student can benefit from some understanding of their subject’s evolution, and they deserve more than comforting myths.
1. P. J. T. Morris, Ambix 59,189-96 (2012).
2. P. J. Ramberg, Ambix 47, 170-195 (2000).