Before "Modern" Chemistry

Cover of the Traité Elémentaire de Chimie (Lavoisier, 1789).

March 1, 2007 - Boston, MA

From Chemistry International

by Laure Joumel

In France, the history of chemistry is an integral part of the university science curriculum. Students learn about the historical figures in the development of chemistry and the books they wrote, which became cornerstones of science. Some of the first and most beautiful editions of these works are conserved in a wonderful library of the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. The collection of the Roy G. Neville Historical Chemical Library, which is carefully conserved and open to the public, spans the late 15th century to the early 20th century and includes many of the most important works in the history of chemical science from that period. (Neville, who founded the firm Engineering and Technical Consultants, is a passionate bibliophile.) The Neville Collection is part of the Othmer Library of Chemical History, one of the richest libraries of this specialty in the world, with roughly 40 000 titles. (Donald F. Othmer was a founding editor of the Kirk-Othmer Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology).

The Neville Library offers a remarkable selection of French-language books, including some rare and precious editions that detail the origin and development of chemistry before Lavoisier’s “revolution.” The library contains editions not only of Lavoisier and his contemporaries, including Louis Bernard Guyton de Morveau, Claude Louis Berthollet, Antoine François de Fourcroy, Pierre Joseph Macquert, and Nicolas Lemery, but also his predecessors who marked the transition from alchemy to early modern science. And, of course, since the “revolution” was not confined to France, the collection also features works from the rest of continental Europe.

From a Philosophy to a Science

One of the earliest French works in the collection is Discours admirables (Paris, 1580), by the great potter. Bernard Palissy (c.1510–1589/90) spent decades studying chemistry and other sciences to perfect his porcelain-making techniques. Palissy criticized contemporary alchemists who sought chemical knowledge in hopes of generating wealth through transmutation rather than applying their knowledge to practical ends, writing, “Those who want to make gold and silver, their stinginess can not be hidden; their goals are at the same level as the lustful and lazy.” (Translations in this article are my own.)

Palissy would undoubtedly have been more satisfied with the practical importance of a 1697 work by Nicolas Lémery (1645–1715), an apothecary from Rouen, Normandy. In Pharmacopée universelle, a book that became a reference tool for generations of chemists (CHF owns a copy of the second edition, Paris, 1725), Lémery explained, “I have begun a task that is greatly desired by many people and that no one, as far as I know, has ever worked on: a universal pharmacopoeia, in which I collect all the descriptions of old and modern pharmacy.” Lémery also wrote Cours de chymie (Paris, 1675), a standard reference in the teaching of early modern chemistry that had an influence well beyond France’s borders. CHF owns French, English, Italian, and German versions.

At the end of the 17th century, a British critic of contemporary chemistry, Robert Boyle, argued that a more orderly approach to chemical theories and practice was required. Conserved in a brown-red box in the CHF library, its cover cracked with age, is a copy of the first edition of Boyles’s The Sceptical Chemist (London, 1661). The preface to this book reveals the author’s thoughts: “Chymical Notion about matters philosophical are taken for granted and employed and so adopted by very eminent writers both Naturalists and Physitians. Now this I fear may prove somewhat prejudicial to the advancement of solid philosophy: For though I am a great Lover of Chymical experiments . . . for ought I can hithero discern, there are a thousand phenomena in Nature, besides a multitude of Accident relating to the humane body, will scarcely be clearly and satisfactorily made out by them that confine themselves to deduce things from Salt, Sulfur, and Mercury.” The book found a wide audience in several languages and countries; CHF’s holdings include editions published in the Netherlands (1668) and Switzerland (1680)...

Link to CI


Need Meeting Space?

CHF’s state-of-the-art conference center is in Philadelphia’s beautiful historic district.

Upcoming Events

Meet us in person at one of our events.


Distillations Podcast logo
Listen to the latest episodes of CHF’s award-winning podcast.