Joseph Priestley Society Luncheon: Jeffrey A. Johnson, “The Great War and the German Chemical Industry: Origins of the Dual-Use Dilemma”

Jeffrey A. Johnson

Jeffrey A. Johnson

Date: March 12, 2015
Time: 11:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.

315 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106

Event Type: Open to the Public
Fee: $25
RSVP Online: Registration Required

Since World War I, often called the chemists’ war, the world has been concerned about the ease with which chemical production can be converted into war production. This month’s JPS will explore this topic in depth. We will hear from Jeffrey A. Johnson, professor, Department of History, Villanova University, and president of the Commission on the History of Modern Chemistry within the history division of the International Union of History and Philosophy of Science. Johnson will present “The Great War and the German Chemical Industry: Origins of the Dual-Use Dilemma.” 

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Coming in person? Use the registration links above.

  About the Event

More information

For more information about this event, please contact Sarah Reisert, awards program manager, at 215.873.8263 or

Boyle Society members receive complimentary admission!

Robert Boyle Society members: To register yourself and up to three guests free of charge, please contact Nancy Vonada, manager of events and donor relations, at 215.873.8226 or

  Event Schedule

Thursday, March 12, 2015

11:30 a.m.

Networking reception

12:15 p.m.


1:00 p.m.

Keynote address

  About the Keynote

World War I has often been called “the chemists’ war” because of the widespread use of chemical weapons by both sides during that conflict. Yet in many ways war production always uses the chemical enterprise, as noted in a British report of 1919: “In the future . . . every chemical factory must be regarded as a potential arsenal.” This fact continues to be referred to as the dual-use dilemma.

The wartime mobilization of the German chemical industry produced its transformation from reliance on an international export market for dyes, pharmaceuticals, and other mainly peacetime products to a war industry producing explosives and chemical weapons, thus demonstrating a productive capacity and versatility that had previously gone almost unrecognized by those outside the industry. By 1916 the German military had begun to institutionalize this duality of the chemical industry in so-called preparedness contracts, whereby the military subsidized the construction of new chemical plants designed not only for the current war but also for conversion to subsequent peacetime production and then reconversion to military uses in the next war. These events had, however, crucial implications for the international structure of the chemical industry in the postwar era; that is, how could the Allies permit the German chemical industry to resume its full peacetime production without simultaneously leaving open the possibility of resuming production for war at short notice?

 Speaker Biographies

Jeffrey Allan Johnson began his studies at Rice University intending to major in chemistry, but a bit of time in the laboratory convinced him to try another approach. He completed a European history doctorate at Princeton University with a dissertation on the founding of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry, which became The Kaiser’s Chemists: Science and Modernization in Imperial Germany (University of North Carolina Press, 1990). Little did grad student Johnson imagine that this topic would in 2012 make him a keynote speaker at the centenary of today’s Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz.

In 1986 Johnson began teaching in the Department of History at Villanova University, making contact with the modest Center for History of Chemistry at Penn led by the outside reader for his dissertation, Arnold Thackray. This Penn center was the nucleus of what became CHF. In the summer of 1989 Johnson finished the research for his book with a two-month exchange fellowship beyond the Berlin Wall, shortly before some of his new East German friends would help tear that wall down. Since then Johnson has continued his research on German chemical history ca. 1865-1945, publishing on professional societies and academic institutions, education and quantum chemistry under the Nazis, women in chemistry, the academic-industrial symbiosis, chemical warfare, and the shaping of national science policy. He is joint author of German Industry and Global Enterprise—BASF: The History of a Company (Cambridge University Press, 2004), coeditor of Frontline and Factory:  Comparative Perspectives on the Chemical Industry at War, 1914-1924 (Springer, 2006), and guest editor of “Chemistry in the Aftermath of World Wars” (Ambix 58/2 [July 2011]). Since 2010 Johnson has been president of the Commission on the History of Modern Chemistry within the history division of the International Union of History and Philosophy of Science, a sister organization to IUPAC.

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