Logo IMG


The Continental Chemistry Wars

Frederic Holmes

Nationalizing Science: Adolphe Wurtz and the Battle for French Chemistry. Alan J. Rocke. xvi + 443 pp. The MIT Press, 2001. $42.95.

Few subjects more fully exemplify the long transition from the small-scale natural philosophy of the 18th century to the "big" science of the 20th century than the emergence and growth of organic chemistry during the 19th century. Organic chemistry, the first subdivision to become clearly demarcated within one of the primary scientific disciplines, became a field of intense specialized activity during the 1830s. After a period of controversy and reform that lasted through the 1850s and culminated in the structural theories of the 1860s, the field grew explosively for the rest of the century. This growth spawned the prodigious development of the first industries to be based on the application of knowledge acquired through the prolonged pursuit of basic scientific research. The leaders in the field of organic chemistry devised the methods of systematic training in large groups, leading students by stages from the basic principles of the science up to the performance of original research, which spread afterward through the other sciences. Organic chemists were the first to require laboratory resources on a scale that pressed governmental budgets, and the first whose success or failure to acquire such resources determined which nations could compete for leadership in a field that had become international in scope but provoked strong national rivalries. No historian of science currently writing masters this historical field more fully than Alan Rocke.

In a previous book titled The Quiet Revolution, Rocke used the German chemist Hermann Kolbe as a focal point through which to view developments in organic chemistry during the 1850s and 1860s that fundamentally altered the field. In Nationalizing Science, he uses similarly the career of the prominent Alsatian chemist Adolphe Wurtz to highlight the "socio-politico-scientific network" within which organic chemistry developed over the decades from its birth in the 1830s to its maturity in the 1880s.

The richness of this book defies easy summary or categorization. Rocke describes lucidly the development of basic laboratory methods, such as Justus Liebig's famous Kaliapparat, which made elementary analysis so simple and reliable that it transformed research on organic compounds and greatly accelerated the growth of the field. He summarizes the main conceptual and methodological developments in the field, much of which he has discussed more fully in his earlier writings. He is particularly concerned in this volume, however, with the French side of an international contest in which German chemists acquired from their respective states ever larger, better equipped laboratories, while their counterparts in Paris either struggled to keep pace within small, outmoded spaces provided by successive penurious governments, or established private laboratories that they were forced to finance through their own limited means.

Through the device of Wurtz's role in these developments, Rocke is able to combine fruitfully micro- and macro-history. On the larger scale we see a panoramic development in which successive generations dominate French chemistry: Joseph Gay-Lussac and Louis Jacques Thenard in the first decades of the century, Jean-Baptiste Dumas and Jules Pelouze in the 1830s and 1840s, Marcellin Berthelot, Henri Sainte-Claire Deville and Wurtz after the mid century. On the biographical scale we see Wurtz, during the period in which German laboratories have far outdistanced the French in both the training of chemists and the magnitude of research, as the sole French organic chemist still able to produce outstanding work in the field and to maintain a teaching laboratory significant enough to attract both French and foreign students.

Among the many subthemes treated revealingly in the book is Wurtz's campaign for the acceptance in France of the reality of atoms and of the structural formulae devised by the German chemist August Kekulé. The opposition to these views came, Rocke shows, not only from the influential Berthelot, but from an antitheoretical, positivist bent shared by other French chemists. Rocke attributes Wurtz's relative lack of success in championing what was already largely accepted in Germany (and was eventually to triumph everywhere) to a concurrence of intellectual, personal and institutional factors. Although highly regarded and eminently accomplished as a discoverer, teacher and administrator, Wurtz never entered the inner circle of the French scientific establishment. His main appointment was at the Faculté de médicine rather than at an institution such as the Collège de France, where he would have had a more powerful platform for the promulgation of his views.

In a concluding section Rocke reconsiders, in the light of his account of organic chemistry, the often-discussed question of whether French science declined over the course of the 19th century. Adducing indisputable evidence that in this case French organic chemistry fell precipitously behind that taking place in Germany, Rocke shows that no single explanatory factor is able to account for this relative decline. It is necessary to invoke both macro and micro aspects of the situation and to explore the comparative situations in the two nations in all dimensions to understand how the country that at the beginning of the century led the world not only in chemistry, but in science in general, lost its commanding lead during the decades that followed.

The organization of Nationalizing Science is complex and sometimes a little confusing. The same events are described repeatedly within the differing contexts of successive chapters. In a strained effort at informality, Rocke resorts to some infelicitous phrases that clash with the general seriousness of tone and substance of the book—for example, he refers to Dumas as wanting "to pick Liebig's brain." These are, however, superficial imperfections in a book of great importance to the history of chemistry and exemplary for the history of science as a whole.—Frederic L. Holmes, History of Medicine, Yale University

comments powered by Disqus

Connect With Us:


Sigma Xi/Amazon Smile (SciNight)

Subscribe to Free eNewsletters!

RSS Feed Subscription

Receive notification when new content is posted from the entire website, or choose from the customized feeds available.

Read Past Issues on JSTOR

JSTOR, the online academic archive, contains complete back issues of American Scientist from 1913 (known then as the Sigma Xi Quarterly) through 2005.

The table of contents for each issue is freely available to all users; those with institutional access can read each complete issue.

View the full collection here.


Of Possible Interest

Book Review: Stocking Nature’s Arsenal

Book Review: Living Color

Book Review: Keeping the Holmes Fires Burning

Subscribe to American Scientist