Brown Bag Lecture: “What’s in a Nomenclature? Structures of Crisis and Reform at the Geneva Nomenclature Congress of 1892”

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Date: December 3, 2013
Time: 12:00 to 1:00 p.m.

315 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106

Event Type: Open to the Public
Fee: Free
RSVP Online: No Registration Required

A talk by Evan Hepler-Smith

In order to teach about, learn about, or record new information about a scientific object, to obtain a sample of it or classify it or promote or disparage it, you need to be able to name it. This is particularly true for organic chemists, who use nomenclature not only to identify tens of millions of carbon-containing small molecules but also to express their inner constitution and the intricate network of relationships among them through systems of prefixes, suffixes, and roots corresponding to chemical subunits. Whether quoted as shibboleth, complied with grudgingly, or honored in the breach, systematic names structure how chemists talk, write, and think about their world. Yet it was not always so.

In this talk Hepler-Smith will describe how and why, at the height of the discipline’s prestige in the late 19th century, some of the foremost organic chemists turned their attention to nomenclature. Gathering at the 1892 Geneva Nomenclature Congress, these chemists addressed what they’d come to see as an untenable confusion among chemical names by establishing for the first time a set of standard, international rules for naming organic substances. To Charles Friedel, Adolf von Baeyer, and their fellow delegates, as well as to the many other chemists who adapted, adopted, or avoided the new Geneva nomenclature, rules for chemical naming were not petty, pedantic matters. Rather they were crucial decisions that required balancing demands of research, teaching, and organizing new knowledge in a time of rapid growth that made these tasks ever more challenging but that chemists were anxious to sustain. They saw decisions about names as decisions about the social and international organization of chemistry, of great consequence for the progress of the field as a whole, and of national industries and academic communities vying for leadership within it.


Evan Hepler-Smith is a Ph.D. candidate in Princeton University’s Program  in History of Science and the 2013–14 Herdegen Fellow of the Chemical Heritage Foundation. In addition to his dissertation, “Nominally Rational: Systematic Nomenclature and the Structures of Organic Chemistry, 1889–1935,” he is pursuing research projects in the X-ray examination of paintings in the early 20th century and in the role of computers in the interplay of logical and aesthetic conceptions of chemical synthesis.

About Brown Bag Lectures

Brown Bag Lectures (BBLs) are a series of weekly informal talks on the history of chemistry or related subjects, including the history and social studies of science, technology, and medicine. Based on original research (sometimes still in progress), these talks are given by local scholars for an audience of CHF staff and fellows and interested members of the public.

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