Figure 1. The Museum at the Science History Institute, in Philadelphia, PA.
© Science History Institute

“What does history have to do with chemistry?”

I have heard many versions of this question from visitors to the Science History Institute, where I work. An independent museum and library dedicated to preserving and sharing the history of the molecular sciences, the Institute serves as a rich resource for a global population of scholars investigating chemical history.

Most of our visitors and participants in our education programs are either students in grades 6-12 or members of the “scientifically-curious” public. The latter category includes people who don’t necessarily see a clear connection between the chemistry they learn(ed) in high school and the narratives and artifacts they associate with the study of the past. As a result, for much of our audience, chemistry and history don’t seem to mix. 

Closing the gap

The disconnect between chemistry and history is understandable. For students, the chemistry they encounter in school can seem downright ahistorical. It may appear little more than a collection of theories, equations, and apparatus that are often presented by teachers (in the interest of time and of meeting established curricular goals) without much reference to the historical actors and times that produced them. In my experience, chemistry teachers often relish the history of their field, and strive to find creative ways to incorporate historical lessons into their curricula. Yet they do so knowing that their principal professional obligation is to teach to approved science standards. That means that storytelling about Lavoisier or Curie is the exception, not the rule. 

Moreover, when students have opportunities to augment classroom-based learning experiences with visits to science museums (whether via field trips or as extracurricular activities), the exhibits they encounter typically do not incorporate artifacts from the history of chemistry. Exhibitions in major science museums founded in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and certainly those in the “science centers” of more recent vintage, have increasingly been designed around interactive exhibits and digital experiences that feature neither artifacts nor history.

Consequently, venues that in the past were reliable points of access to chemistry’s history have largely been re-focused on hands-on engagement with the STEM concepts, mirroring contemporary K-12 curricula.

That said, chemistry teachers have long recognized the value of incorporating historical material into their teaching. I am reminded of this fact in 2021 as we celebrate an important milestone: the 100th anniversary of the creation of the Division of the History of Chemistry by the American Chemical Society. The creation of HIST was the inspiration, in part, of Edgar Fahs Smith, a distinguished professor of chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania who, beginning in 1896 and through the 1920s, regularly supplemented his chemistry lectures with presentations on the history of the field. 

One professor’s legacy

Smith was certainly not the first teacher to weave the history of chemistry into his classroom, but he was particularly eloquent on the importance of doing so.  In 1925, he took to the pages of the Journal of Chemical Education to record his “Observations on the Teaching of the History of Chemistry.” In that article, Smith expressed his hope that, by introducing the history of the field into the chemistry curriculum, “chemistry will cease to be regarded as a strange science,” that appears synonymous in the minds of students and the public alike, with mathematics and theoretical abstractions.1

These sentiments were echoed by many of Smith’s collaborators; in an address to the 1922 annual meeting of the ACS, Edward E. Slosson urged the audience to consider “The Human Side of Chemistry,” noting that by reducing the presentation of chemistry to mathematical formulae and, simultaneously, marginalizing the originating contexts of discoveries and freeing them from “all taint of time, place and personality…one has eliminated the human element and thus eliminated the human interest.”2

Conveying the “human interest” in chemistry was a major pedagogical focus for Professor Smith. Rather than dwell on the theoretical or technical aspects of past chemical methods and innovations, he shared inspiring stories of chemical actors as heroic figures. As he saw it, part of his mission was to inculcate in his students a “recognition of the dignity of chemistry, of the struggles and revolutions down the ages through which it has passed.” Smith and his like-minded colleagues sought to elevate the professional persona of the chemist to a figure worthy of emulation by their students — and of admiration in the eyes of the public.

Searching for new stories

Of course, the set of actors and stories that would have figured in Smith’s teaching has evolved a good deal since the early 20th century. Along with traditional figures and sites of investigation (typically white, male, professional scientists working in laboratories), historians of chemistry have shed light on new actors (such as technicians and artisans) and spaces (hospitals, factories, and domestic settings) where chemistry was practiced.

In recent decades, the history of chemistry has built new bridges to the humanities and social sciences. exploring intersections between chemistry and such diverse fields as popular science, gender studies, and visual and material culture. This research has illuminated many hitherto unexplored angles from which chemistry can be taught and connected to students’ lives. 

Case studies and arresting anecdotes in the history of chemistry not only foster understanding of fundamental scientific principles and the nature of scientific inquiry, but also inspire diverse populations of students to take an interest in chemistry. For these reasons, such historical connections are often featured in projects designed to reform secondary science education.

The Next Generation Science Standards, released in 2013, encourage teachers to incorporate historical material into their chemistry curricula. The premise behind many of these learning designs is that students will find it easier to process theories, discrete facts, and mathematically couched principles in chemistry if they encounter them as features within compelling historical narratives. What is more, if a student understands the set of questions, circumstances, and challenges that attended the development of a given chemical model, she can better understand the reasoning behind that model and how it functions.3

And yet…as useful as the history of chemistry can be for introducing students to the principles and practices of the field, it can face stiff challenges to acceptance and relevance in the classroom. Along with competing for time with standards-based curricula, historical lessons can be tough to impart in ways that engage students.

Edgar Fahs Smith had something to say about this challenge: in his “Observations” article, he acknowledged that his initial attempts to spark an enthusiasm for chemical history in his students with one-hour history lectures were met with a tepid response: “And what was the reaction of these students? They received the lectures with respect and some interest; but little enthusiasm was enkindled, because the lectures contained nothing to arouse a spirit of inquiry or to create a very thoughtful attitude.” His talks, he said, had “a soporific influence” on his young audience.4 

The power of objects

Smith’s remedy for his students’ indifference to his history lectures was to incorporate objects and archival materials from his vast personal collections into his lectures. Throughout his career as an educator and administrator, he had been a passionate collector of vintage primary texts, antiquated chemical apparatus and instruments, and works of art. In fact, he eventually made his historical trove available to educators and students as the Edgar Fahs Smith Collection at Penn. While he clearly took intellectual and aesthetic pleasure in assembling these collections, his main purpose in gathering and curating them was pedagogical. “These assembled collections — portrait prints, autograph letters and old chemistries…were aids,” he noted, for stimulating curiosity and engagement with the history of chemistry in his young audience.5 

Smith’s insight was that, to cultivate students’ appreciation for the history of chemistry, and to secure a place for history as an important complement to chemical teaching and practice, he had to focus not only on the accumulation and presentation of historical content, but also on the means of presenting it. Introducing students to chemistry’s past through presentation of artifacts, and the stories those artifacts tell, could make a real difference in their engagement with the subject.

Although most science museums and centers have largely stopped exhibiting historical artifacts of chemistry, there are smaller science museums and university-based collections, scattered across the United States, that still preserve and share such materials. As a result, there may be opportunities for educational institutions to partner with science museums, gaining access to artifacts and stories to complement classroom teaching in chemistry.  

The Science History Institute is one such institution. Located in the heart of Philadelphia’s “Old City,” the Institute has served since 1982 as a key resource for a global network of researchers and teachers investigating the history of chemistry. Home to a research library, museum, and online publications and podcast series, the Institute has functioned as a kind of “laboratory”— a place animated by the spirit of experimentation, where ideas that have enriched the history of chemistry have been incubated, circulated, and woven into new knowledge products and experiences.

Putting our unique teaching resources online

Figure 2. An image from Science History Institute’s online resource, “Mechanochemistry: The Science of Crush”.
© Science History Institute

As our Institute enters its fifth decade, we want to expand our commitment to teachers and students, engaging these audiences with chemical history in new, accessible ways. We’re designing a suite of online exhibitions on topics in the history of chemistry that will be available to chemistry teachers at no cost, on Google Arts & Culture.

Our first foray onto this digital platform is entitled, “Mechanochemistry: The Science of Crush.” This resource allows visitors to explore the origins of mechanical chemistry, the interface between chemistry and mechanical engineering that investigates the synthesis of chemical products using only mechanical actions, such as grinding, shearing, and ball milling. Featuring text written for high school readers, the site uses historical illustrations and photographs to explain how mechanochemical processes can eliminate the need for solvents in chemical syntheses. Mechanochemistry is, in this sense, a “green chemistry,” and therefore of interest to students and teachers who are concerned about environmental sustainability.

Just as compelling for students is that the story of mechanochemistry can reveal surprising and interesting information about chemistry’s origins. Humans have been engaging in mechanochemistry for thousands of years, as exemplified by the crushing and grinding of food using mortar and pestle — an ancient practice in various civilizations. This chemical practice not only involved many historical actors we would not normally think of as “scientists,” but also happened in settings outside of conventional laboratories.

The original artifacts and historical images featured in “The Science of Crush” help us tell stories about chemistry’s past that render it accessible and engaging — and can provide teachers with a low-threshold way to introduce chemistry to their students as a field worthy of their attention. This resource, and others that will be introduced on the site in the future, can be used to complement existing lesson plans on chemical history, such as those developed by ACS based on its National Historic Chemical Landmarks program.6 I invite you to check out “The Science of Crush” and the exhibitions that will follow it, all designed and produced “to arouse a spirit of inquiry” in the next generation of chemistry students.

References and Notes

  1. Smith, E. Observations on the Teaching of the History of Chemistry. J. Chem. Educ. 1925, 2, 533-555.
  2. Quoted in Bohning, J. History of HIST II. On Probation. Bull. Hist. Chem. 2010, 35, 75-76.
  3. Olsson, K.; Balgopal, M.; Levinger, N. How Did We Get Here? Teaching Chemistry with a Historical Perspective. J. Chem. Educ. 2015, 92, 1773-1776.
  4. Smith, E. Observations on the Teaching of the History of Chemistry. J. Chem. Educ. 1925, 2, 533-555.
  5. Smith, E. Observations on the Teaching of the History of Chemistry. J. Chem. Educ. 1925, 2, 533-555.
  6. See ACS National Historic Chemical Landmarks landing page. (accessed Oct 19, 2021).

Photo credit:
(article cover) Rokotam/