The editors themselves fittingly contribute five of the seven chapters of this compelling and scholarly volume and, joined by Jack Morrell and Peter J. T. Morris, the team deliver a thorough and convincing dissection and analysis of Oxford chemistry set against the academic and political influences of the period, and in the context of the wider history of science.
Williams, in ‘An outline of the history of Oxford University with reference to its chemistry school’, forewarns the reader of the peculiarities of the evolution and uneven contributions of that school that have arisen in very large measure from the historical duality of power held between the colleges on the one hand and the university on the other, the latter under arts-majority control, issues he returns to with fervour in the final chapter.
In ‘From alchemy to air pumps’, Chapman eloquently describes the foundations of Oxford chemistry up to 1700. We are advised to dismiss alchemy at our peril, not least because of the influence of its guiding principles on Robert Boyle. Then his experiments raised doubts about received chemical opinions and led to alternative models that influenced his successors in Oxford and more widely. Further insights into the works of Thomas Willis, Boyle himself, Robert Hooke, John Mayow and John Ward, are enriched by our journey to their laboratories. The period closes with Dr Robert Plot, officially the first Professor of Chemistry in 1683, in the laboratory in the basement of the (Old) Ashmolean Museum (now the Museum of the History of Science) in Broad Street, to no surprise, but the role of Oxford's ‘invisible’ chemists, the city apothecaries and their laboratories, adds a new dimension based on more recent research.
Peter Morris, under the title ‘The eighteenth century: chemistry allied to anatomy’, teases out the characteristics and principal players, from a paucity of documentary evidence, in what was a ‘lean’ period for chemistry at Oxford, the more regrettable at a time when the subject flourished elsewhere in Britain and Europe in the hands of Newton, Stahl, Boerhaave, Cullen, Black, Priestley and Lavoisier, and 19 new elements were discovered. To understand this loss of momentum we are led to confront uncertainties regarding both the audience for chemistry at Oxford—gentlemen offered an extramural option to a classical education—and the standing of the subject as a subordinate part of the medical curriculum allied to anatomy. Thomas Beddoes, too radical for the university's tastes, was the best-known chemist in Oxford in this period, but for all practical purposes, Morris sees the appointment of Martin Wall in 1781 as the start of an unbroken continuum of chemistry in the university.
The complex and often troubled processes by which chemistry matured as a discipline in Oxford are fluently presented in Rowlinson's longer chapter, ‘Chemistry comes of age: the 19th century’. As in the later chapters, the players' characters are brought more alive and the dramas play out on many larger stages. Incumbents of the newly endowed chair of chemistry struggled and largely failed to prevent Oxford's falling behind Europe, particularly in the research and exploitation of the burgeoning organic chemistry in the last quarter of the century. Meanwhile, despite laboratory facilities in the new museum, it was predominantly the endeavours in the college laboratories that produced research of international importance in physical chemistry, by the end of this period another clearly distinct discipline.
In Morrell's chapter, ‘Research as the thing: Oxford chemistry 1912–1939’, we see the school recover from the overlong and unproductive tenure of Odling through the successive appointments of pre-eminent researchers and by the creation of the Dyson Perrins laboratory for organic chemistry, and the financing of a future new building for physical chemistry, both owing much to industrial philanthropy. Perkin, and then Robinson and Hinshelwood, seem dominant, whereas Soddy, the senior Nobel laureate, constantly at loggerheads with the university and his colleagues, comes over as a largely wasted and frustrated presence. Hume-Rothery prospers as something of a nomad, a description that even better fits a later star, Dorothy Hodgkin, whereas Sidgwick is surprisingly claimed as the pre-eminent figure of the period through his breadth of vision and reconciling skills.
After a short account by Rowlinson, ‘Chemists at war’, Williams delivers the final tour de force with ‘Recent times, 1945–2005: a school of world renown’. Necessarily differently structured and more synoptic in its reportage, although not holding back in its critiques, in this chapter there are four clear leitmotifs. One is the re-emergence of inorganic chemistry in its rightful stature and contemporary diversity. A second is the successes and failures in bringing chemistry and the biological sciences into fruitful partnerships. The third, present throughout, is the tension between the ‘intellectual’ chemists systematically interweaving experiment, mathematics and theory, and the ‘practical’ chemists more concerned with degradation, synthesis and structural analysis. The last theme is the continuing struggle to construct, lead, manage and finance a chemistry school fit for the twenty-first century in a collegiate, arts-dominated university competing in a world very different from that of immediate postwar Britain. The end note is, however, justifiably one of pride and guarded optimism.
This volume is not without some inconsistencies and discrepancies and would benefit from more cross-referencing. Most of all to regret is the paucity and quality of the illustrations, with but one single real-life image of an identifiable human being, the much lamented Henry Moseley, who was killed at Gallipoli.
- © 2009 The Royal Society