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Vol. 30 No. 1
January-February 2008

Conference Call | Reports from recent conferences and symposia 
See also www.iupac.org/symposia

The Evolving Identity of Chemistry

by D. Thorburn Burns and Brigitte Van Tiggelen

A widely attended international conference of more than 110 participants from 26 countries gathered in Erasmushuis at the University of Leuven, Belgium, from 28 August–1 September 2007 for the 6th International Conference on the History of Chemistry (6ICHC), organized by the Working Party on History of Chemistry of the European Association for Chemical and Molecular Sciences (EuCheMS). A major aim of these conferences is to facilitate communication between chemists interested in history and historians of chemistry from all over Europe. The first such conference was organized in Hungary in 1991. Since then the working party has fostered the creation of what is now a well-connected community that meets every two years.

Previous conferences were held in Budapest in September 2003 and in Lisbon in September 2005. The 2007 theme “Neighbors and Territories: The Evolving Identity of Chemistry” focused on the disciplinary identity of chemistry and its changing relationships with other fields. The Program Committee was chaired by José R. Bertomeu-Sanchez (University of Valencia) and the Belgo-Dutch Local Committee was chaired by Brigitte Van Tiggelen (University of Leuven and Mémosciences).

So, why would members of EuCheMS, IUPAC, and, more generally, active practicing chemists be interested in this conference? First, it should be noted that many of the questions investigated by historians and philosophers are naturally rooted in their experiences, reflections, and views on the present state of chemistry. The severe attacks on chemistry’s public image has led for several decades to various counter-strategies, many focused on costly advertising campaigns, others on popularizing the discipline and developing new teaching techniques. To historians, the problem is not just one of image; the recent emergence of new fields (material science or biotechnology to name but two) clearly raises the question of the identity of chemistry. Putting this question in historical perspective is a good reminder that chemistry actually never held a definite and unchanging identity. On the contrary, the science of matter (chemistry) and its transformations with time are very much controlled by reactivity to changes in the scientific and social environments.

Participants at the 6th International Conference on the History of Chemistry.

Throughout its history, chemistry has been shifting ground between different identities. From its roots in artisan technologies, pharmaceutical workshops, and alchemistic philosophy, it has developed into an archetypical laboratory science of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, ultimately claiming full academic status. Chemists have invaded many new fields, from agriculture and industry, to medicine, public hygiene, and pharmacology. In the twentieth century, chemistry contributed to the major scientific developments in molecular biology, quantum mechanics, environmental science, and nanotechnology. Chemists also gained key positions in the oil, plastics, and pharmaceutical industries. This broad and continuous adaptation of the discipline to various fields of endeavour has brought chemistry in close contact with neighboring disciplines and to social pressures. Time and again, chemists have needed to carve out their own territory, to negotiate with other specialists, and to gain particular expertise in widely divergent fields. How chemists achieved this aim was a major thread in the meeting.

Although this was a meeting on the history of chemistry, many speakers brought the discussions up to date. The opening plenary lecture discussed the current popular polarization of chemistry into separate areas, namely bio- and nanotechnologies. For Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent (Université Paris X), “The New Identity of Chemistry as Biomimetic and Nanoscience” does not erase the need for broad chemical expertise which is, and will be, needed more than ever to advance these new fields.

The conference was attended by more than 110 participants. Europe was of course well represented, but what was more striking was the growing presence of overseas historians of chemistry or historically-minded chemists: Some came from the fringes of Europe, Israël, or Russia, others from much further away, including Canada, USA, Mexico, Brazil, Taiwan, and Japan.

Fifty-nine oral presentations were given in 18 sessions; posters were available to view throughout the conference. The wide range of material covered is indicated by the session topics: alchemy and early chemistry to early modern chemistry; identity and boundaries in the seventeenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries; boundaries between physics and chemistry, chemistry, medicine and pharmacy, organic chemistry, biochemistry and molecular biology; the development of macromolecular chemistry; and teaching and knowledge in transit.

The plenary lectures reflected the many facets of the main theme. Ana Simoes (University of Lisbon) investigated the emergence and identity of quantum chemistry in her talk “Dangerous Liaisons or Unavoidable Associations: Quantum Chemistry at the Crossroads of Chemistry, Physics, and Mathematics.” Lawrence Principe (The Johns Hopkins University) showed through his lecture, “Transmuting Chymistry into Chemistry: Eighteenth-Century loss of Chrysopoeia and its Repudiation,” how the disappearance of alchemical pursuits at the Paris Academy of Science was triggered by the local French context with the suspicions of poisoning at the court and not so much by a shift in the aims of exact sciences. With his presentation “Close Neighbours, but Different Chemistries: Chemistry in the Low Countries 1600–1900,” Ernst Homburg (University of Maastricht) demonstrated clearly the influence of local political, social, or economical context by contrasting the development of the discipline in two very different settings.

This conference lived up to expectations, based upon experiences of earlier ICHC, in content, ambience, mix of participant’s backgrounds, warmth of welcome, and in the ensuing social program and interactions. As usual, the conference outings were private visits to museums of interest, this time in Ghent. The first visit, which deserves a special mention, was to the Museum for the History of Sciences at the University of Ghent. The museum has an excellent collection of instruments used in teaching and research since its foundation in 1817. The director, Kristel Wautier expertly introduced the main collections and the temporary exhibition she had prepared about Leo Hendrik Baekeland (1863–1944), the inventor of Bakelite, who studied chemistry in Ghent under Théodore Swarts (1839–1911). On show was the Bakelite volumetric apparatus, resistant to hydrofluoric acid, which Baekeland made for his step-brother, Frédéric Jean Edmond Swarts (1866–1940). This was a most significant and useful gift to Swarts, a pioneer in the organic chemistry of fluorine. The museum collection also includes memorabilia of August Kekulé (1829–1896); Kekulé was professor of the University of Ghent from 1858 to 1867. The contemplation of such chemical heritage was at least as significant and meaningful to those who devote themselves to the current practice or to the history of chemistry.

Duncan Thorburn Burns <profburns@chemistry.fsbusiness.co.uk> is professor emeritus of Analytical Chemistry at The Queen’s University of Belfast. He was first elected to IUPAC in 1979 to the Commission on General Aspects of Analytical Chemistry, serving as chairman from 1987–1989 and then as National Representative for Ireland. Brigitte Van Tiggelen <vantiggelen@memosciences.be> is at the University of Leuven and Mémosciences <www.memosciences.be>; she co-chaired the program committee of 6ICHC.

Further details of the recent and ongoing activities of the Working Party for the History of Chemistry can be found on the EuCheMS web-site <www.euchems.org>.


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