Books to Note: Fall 2008

Allen G. Debus. The Chemical Promise: Experiment and Mysticism in the Chemical Philosophy, 1550– 1800. Sagamore Beach, MA: Science History Publications, 2006. 576 pp. $89.95 cloth.

Reviewed by M.D. Eddy

Over the past five decades Allen Debus has written several influential books on the history of chemical philosophy. They have shed much light on chemical pedagogies and methods of experimentation, as well as the personal and often religious beliefs that motivated naturalists and physicians to investigate the form and composition of matter. Throughout his career Debus has shown that chemistry played a much larger role in the Scientific Revolution than had hitherto been recognized. A surprisingly cohesive book, The Chemical Promise is a superb essay collection that unites around 30 of Debus’s detailed studies that were orphaned over the years in various journals and books. Well-known “chymists” like Paracelsus, Robert Fludd, John Dee, Robert Boyle, and Jean Baptiste van Helmot are treated. Notable institutions like the Royal Society, the London College of Physicians, and Oxford University appear regularly. The book also mentions personalities that historians have unduly neglected, and it features several illuminating essays on the impact of chemical philosophy on Enlightenment Spain and Portugal. It is an informative work that complements Debus’s other books and that will undoubtedly remain a helpful resource for those interested in the history of early modern chemistry and medicine.



Catherine Brady. Elizabeth Blackburn and the Story of Telomeres: Deciphering the Ends of DNA. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007. 424 pp. $29.95 cloth.

Reviewed by Audra J. Wolfe

Elizabeth Blackburn is best known to the American public as a critic of the Bush administration’s science policies who was forced off the President’s Council on Bioethics for objecting to its moratorium on stem cell research. Molecular biologists and biochemists, on the other hand, know her as a pioneer in the study of telomeres, the repeat sequence of DNA that appears at the end of chromosomes and plays an important role in preserving the integrity of genetic information across generations of cell life. Brady’s respectful and laudatory biography, which is based on extensive interviews with Blackburn and her colleagues, traces the arc of Blackburn’s career thus far, with emphasis on Blackburn’s trials as a leading female scientist in a male-dominated world. Brady’s crystal-clear discussion of the science and significance of telomeric research is a highlight of this account of the work of a remarkable scientist.