Brown Bag Lecture: “Symbolic Elements and Generic Solutions: Humphry Davy’s Consolations in Travel

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Date: March 4, 2014
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 Kurtis Hessel

Nineteenth-century English chemist Humphry Davy is best known for his electrochemical work at London’s Royal Institution, which included the discovery of numerous chemical elements, among them potassium, sodium, and chlorine. Davy’s experiments called into question then prevalent ideas about how the elements make up a given substance. Davy eventually inferred that perhaps chemical properties did not arise from single elements at all but from their peculiar combinations in more complex substances. By extension, despite the promise of unitary simplicity they offered, elements could only be conceived as inextricably bound to one another.

This lecture considers this chemical development in light of Davy’s posthumously published work Consolations in Travel (1830), noted for its composite genres, disjointed narrative, overt mysticism, and complex theoretical and ideological positions. Kurtis Hessel will explore the ways in which the text’s fragmentation—which has perplexed critics and scholars since its publication—should be understood as a response to the period’s growing divide between scientific and humanistic discourses. Much as elementary unity was composite, Davy’s mixing of genres seems to offer a literary solution to the problem of divisions forming in human knowledge.

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.

For more information, please call 215.873.8289 or e-mail

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