Jeffrey Johnson


2014 John C. Haas Fellow

Jeffrey Allan Johnson is a professor of history at Villanova University and current president of the Commission on the History of Modern Chemistry (CHMC) in the Division of History of Science and Technology, International Union of History and Philosophy of Science. Johnson received his doctorate in modern European history from Princeton University, with a dissertation on the role of chemists in founding the first Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes during the decade leading up to World War I; this became his first book, The Kaiser’s Chemists:  Big Science in Imperial Germany (University of North Carolina Press, 1990). It was while doing the research for this book that he first encountered Emil Fischer’s 1915 speech on the Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes and the connection of chemistry and biology, in which Fischer foresaw, “half in a dream, the emergence of a synthetic-chemical biology that will transform the living world.”  

This is the topic on which Jeff will be working during the current year, during which, besides his time at CHF, he will visit collections in a variety of places in the United States and Europe, as well as giving a talk at a CHMC cosponsored workshop in Tokyo. He wants to trace the idea of synthesizing life back to its ancient alchemical roots; to examine its reshaping during the 20th century in the work of bio-organic chemists like Fischer as well as his successors among the molecular biologists, genetic engineers, and more recently synthetic biologists; and to consider its social and cultural ramifications (ethical, philosophical, and visionary, going back to the likes of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Karel Čapek’s R.U.R., and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein).  

Along with artificial life, Jeff has mainly worked on the history of chemistry, the chemical industry, and science policy in modern Germany to 1945, most recently producing publications on women in the chemical industry, quantum chemistry in Nazi Germany, and chemistry in war.   


Jeffrey Johnson at Villanova University