Catherine Jackson: “Beyond Genius, Before Theory: Recovering the Lost World of Practice in 19th-Century Chemistry”

Catherine Jackson, Ph.D.

We have often been told that chemistry was built on theory by genius. But what did 19th-century chemists know? What could they do, and how could they do it? 

On May 23, 2012, Catherine Jackson presented a talk outlining an entirely new account of the development of organic chemistry. This history recovers a lost world of chemists in laboratories filled with glassware—a world of purification, characterization, and standardization; of reliable reactions and inescapable risks; of textbooks and manuals of practice; of training and labor. By about 1900, synthetic chemists had acquired a remarkable mastery over nature, but their achievements were not driven by theory. Organic synthesis—this vast, uniquely creative practice—was essential to stabilizing productive theories of structure and reactivity. Chemists achieve great things, but they do so for reasons beyond genius, using methods before theory.

About the Speaker

Catherine Jackson is the 2011−12 Gordon Cain Fellow at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, where she is working to complete the manuscript of her academic monograph Material World: Analysis, Synthesis, and the Making of Modern Chemistry, a new history of the origins and development of synthetic organic chemistry.

Jackson began her working life as a research chemist before becoming a project manager in the petroleum industry and later teaching chemistry and history of chemistry at University College London. She is a member of the Royal Society of Chemistry and has been honored with a Chartered Chemist award. She has been a visiting scholar at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin and holds honorary appointments in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at University College London and in the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine at Imperial College London.

Jackson has published on the history of chemistry in leading European journals, including Notes and Records of the Royal Society, and is coeditor, with Hasok Chang, of An Element of Controversy: The Life of Chlorine in Science, Medicine, Technology and War (British Society for the History of Science, 2007).

Jackson holds PhDs in both organic chemistry (University of Cambridge, 1989) and history of chemistry (University of London, 2009).