Brown Bag Lecture: “Emil Fischer’s Dream: A ‘Synthetic-Chemical Biology’ in the Early 20th Century”

Brown Bag Lecture icon

Date: September 30, 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 Jeffrey Johnson

In 1915 the German Nobel laureate Emil Fischer visualized, “half in a dream, the emergence of a synthetic-chemical biology that will transform the living world as fundamentally as chemistry, physics, and industry have done for so long with non-living nature.” It will be the purpose of this presentation to show the theoretical and experimental context of that vision, which arose from Fischer’s decades-long quest to synthesize the fundamental molecules of life and from his understanding of the implications of the contemporaneous work of other chemists and biologists. By 1913 Fischer had begun to experiment with the nucleic acids and to consider the possibility of creating synthetic genes in order to modify “lower” life forms. World War I put an end to Fischer’s project, and his hopes were premature, but the presentation will outline some of the immediate and longer-term cultural and scientific impacts of his vision, culminating in the emergence of synthetic biology, which is bringing Fischer’s dream much closer to reality.

Jeffrey Allan Johnson is a professor of history at Villanova University and current president of the Commission on the History of Modern Chemistry in the Division of History of Science and Technology, International Union of History and Philosophy of Science. His publications deal mainly with the social and institutional history of chemistry, the chemical industry, and science policy in modern Germany to 1945, most recently including women in the chemical industry during the first half of the 20th century, quantum chemistry and educational policy in Nazi Germany, chemists and chemicals in wars and their aftermaths, and the history of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry, 1905 to 1930. His current Brown Bag talk has developed out of a long-standing interest in the history of artificial life, as seen from broader cultural and philosophical as well as scientific and technological perspectives.

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

Register for an event link

Need Meeting Space?

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

Brown Bag Lecture Series

Enjoy a bring-your-own brown-bag lunch while listening to CHF scholars share their research.

Fellowships at CHF

CHF’s scholars, who spend anywhere from one to nine months in residence, form a vital part of CHF’s intellectual life.

Support CHF

Help us preserve and share the history of chemistry and related sciences. Make a tax-deductible tax-deductible gift online.