Book Reviews

“Cradle of Chemistry: The First Century of Chemistry at the University of Edinburgh” edited by Robert G W Anderson

Reviewed by Mark G Spencer

Robert G W Anderson, ed. Cradle of Chemistry: The First Century of Chemistry at the University of Edinburgh (Edinburgh: John Donald, 2015). Reviewed by Mark G Spencer.

The dozen chapters that comprise Cradle of Chemistry came out of a conference celebrating the 300th anniversary of the introduction of the study of chemistry at the University of Edinburgh. They offer informative points of entry to that story from 1713, when James Crawford (1682-1731) was appointed as Edinburgh’s first professor of medicine, through the end of the 19th century. Like many volumes originating in commemorative conferences this one is uneven and at times disjointed, but it holds together better than most. cradle-of-chemistry

One of the book’s strengths is the differing vantage points from which its contributors approach their task. Archaeology, chemical physics, intellectual history, philosophy/history of science, public history, museum studies: all these fields are represented. An interdisciplinary approach is particularly apt since it approximates the attitude of the enlightened chemists who figure prominently in these pages. Indeed, the volume’s readers will come away with a robust sense of the importance of chemistry as an engine for Scotland’s Enlightenment. As editor Robert Anderson summarizes:

“The teaching of chemistry at the University of Edinburgh came about through its association with medicine, and the ambition to establish a medical school which would enjoy a high reputation, would encourage Scottish students to stay at home rather than be attracted to foreign universities on the European Continent, while at the same time bring foreign students to Edinburgh” (1).

We will return to that theme when we come to the “Afterword,” but first, a summary of the book’s contents.

John Henry documents how Scots were “in the vanguard” (15) disseminating Sir Isaac Newton’s (1643-1727) works, and method, in the Enlightenment. Reminiscent of Sir Isaiah Berlin (1909-97), who cast Newton as “the strongest single factor” (9) underlying Enlightenment, Henry sees Newton’s impact not only among Edinburgh’s chemists, but with a range of scholars from moral philosophers, such as David Hume (1711-76), to geologists, notably James Hutton (1726-97). John C Power traces to Edinburgh an intellectual influence from Leiden – Herman Boerhaave (1668-1738), especially his chemical theory. It was absorbed – along with Newtonianism – by chemists such as James Crawford and Crawford’s practically inclined colleague, Andrew Plummer (1698-1756). We learn about Plummer’s teaching from Georgette Taylor who compares him to his better-known successor, William Cullen (1710-90). Cullen’s student and successor, Joseph Black (1728-99) –perhaps the most-celebrated chemist of the Scottish Enlightenment, known especially for his chemical definition of gases such as carbon dioxide – is the focus of six chapters, including John R R Christie’s which centers on Black’s students. Christie finds that Black was right to draw attention to the fact that Edinburgh’s science students “enjoy the most perfect liberty in chuseing [sic] their philosophical opinions” (96).

The following chapter, Matthew Daniel Eddy’s, and the next several, are nicely enhanced by plates in this richly illustrated volume (there are 47 plates in all). Eddy shows that, as a teacher “Black employed simple visual structures to represent how substances were attracted to each other in compounds” (99). Next, Tom Addyman offers a preliminary outline of “a discovery of chemistry-related materials made during archaeological excavations within the University of Edinburgh’s Old College Quadrangle in 2010 and 2011” (115). A D  Morrison-Low’s short essay augments Addyman’s dig with an account of the laboratory glassware unearthed. Some were made by Archibald Geddes (1726-1809). He attended Black’s lectures, became his friend, and, when Black became a director of the company Geddes founded, his business associate. Peter J T Morris “solves a long-standing issue of where Joseph Black’s final house (and place of death) was located.” In so doing, he reminds us “that the homes of famous scientists are easily forgotten and rarely preserved” (139).

Black was long remembered by his students, though, as the book’s editor shows with a chapter on Thomas Charles Hope (1766-1844), Edinburgh’s fifth professor of chemistry and medicine. Hope “saw himself continuing in Black’s tradition, even 40 years after his mentor’s death” (147). Anderson finds that Hope’s “enduring reputation as a conservative, pompous, rather dull teacher” is justified (147), in part because he remained handicapped by Black’s fame. Andrew J Alexander pursues chemistry at Edinburgh in the hands of Hope’s student William Gregory (1803-58) and Gregory’s successors Lyon Playfair (1818-98) and Alexander Crum Brown (1838-1922). In 1868, the latter was one of the 12 Edinburgh medical men who helped found the Round Table Club. Another member of this “good fellowship” society, Dr Joseph Bell (1837-1911), was the model for Sherlock Holmes, the fictional creation of Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), himself a medical student at Edinburgh where he attended “Crummy” Brown’s chemistry lectures.

What does this book tell us about the nature of the Scottish Enlightenment and its legacy? It remind us, writes Hasok Chang in his “Afterword,” that for Edinburgh’s enlightened chemists (and we might add their other enlightened colleagues), it was neither “the specific content of doctrine” nor the “particular directions of research” (180) of individual professors that was most noteworthy. Rather, it was a “general characteristic of anti-authoritarian empiricism”, a “pragmatist sense of developing the sort of knowledge based on concrete engagement with the material processes of nature” (185), that stands out. That is what attracted students in such large numbers. Surely, in this respect Scotland’s Enlightenment offers today’s university teachers and their students models worth emulating.

For the reasons outlined above, Cradle of Chemistry is a useful and entertaining book. Its readers will not only learn about the early years of the teaching of chemistry at the University of Edinburgh, but they will also come away with a better sense of what that endeavour contributed to the broader Scottish Enlightenment and its aftermath.

Mark G Spencer is Professor of History at Brock University. He is the author of David Hume and Eighteenth-Century America (2005) and editor of more than a dozen volumes, including The Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of the American Enlightenment (2015) which is now available as an e-book in the Oxford Reference Library. 

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