The Chemical Educator, Vol. 6, No. 2, S1430-4171(01)02475-6, 10.1007/s00897010475a, © 2001 Springer-Verlag New York, Inc.

Nationalizing Science. Adolph Wurtz and the Battle for French Chemistry. By Alan J. Rocke. 442 pp + xi. The MIT Press: Cambridge, Mass. and London, England. £29.50 clothbound. ISBN 0-262-18204-1.


Reviewed by, Hugh Cartwright, University of Oxford,


In the earliest years of the nineteenth century, chemistry was very clearly a minority interest. The small amount of chemistry research that was carried out was focused in Germany, France, and, to a lesser extent, England. Chemistry was the study of still largely mysterious and unpredictable events, and progress was hampered by a number of intractable problems.


A theoretical understanding of how and why chemical change occurred was almost completely absent. Proposals that matter might exist as “atoms” or “molecules” had little support, and indeed there was no persuasive evidence to suggest that such a theory might be of value.


Scientific equipment was naive and often fragile; it was difficult to use, and inaccurate. Consequently, the composition of chemicals could be determined only approximately. As an inevitable result, it was not only hard to distinguish one compound from another, but also to make meaningful comparison of data generated in different laboratories.


External funding for scientific research was almost unheard of, and the costs of most work were met by the researchers themselves. Finally, communication between scientists in different countries, and even within a single country, was poor, so discoveries made in one laboratory remained largely unrecognized outside it, and so could do little to fertilize and encourage work elsewhere.


This unpromising environment was, in the space of a few decades, transformed by a series of technical developments, and by the rise of a number of outstanding chemists. Liebig, Gay-Lussac, Dumas, Wurtz, Berzelius, and many others suddenly found the world of chemistry opening up before them. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the precision of chemical analyses had improved beyond recognition; this was the key step in the development both of modern organic synthesis and the atomic theory.


The principle advance in chemical technique was the development by Liebig of his Kaliapparat, which allowed the analysis of organic compounds to be carried out with unprecedented precision, even by workers with quite modest training. Widespread use of this new equipment lead to a rapid expansion of chemistry in centers across Europe, but particularly in Paris, London, and several cities in what is now Germany. Adolph Wurtz was not the key figure in these developments, but had a special position in French chemistry, linking together in an almost unique way the evolution of the subject in France and Germany.

As Alan Rocke writes, Nationalizing Science seeks to “integrate personal biography, development of scientific thought, scientific work and the scientific world in which the scientist operates,” and this wide-reaching aim is entirely appropriate for a book about Wurtz. In it, the author describes the chemist not merely as a researcher, but also as a participant in the social, cultural, and political world of nineteenth-century France. The focal point is thus what Rocke describes as the “socio-politico-scientific network” in which Wurtz lived.


Two initial chapters describe the scientific culture which existed before Wurtz’s arrival in Paris. French chemistry was dominated by Gay-Lussac, Thenard, and DuLong, but progress, even for such notable scientists as these, was hampered both by a lack of funds, and by the cumul. Under this system, many university professors held simultaneous appointments at several Parisian universities. While these multiple appointments helped to provide a living wage, little time remained for research, since most professors were required to teach every day at every university at which they held an appointment. Such research as was possible was usually carried out in ill-lit, poorly-ventilated rooms, hardly an ideal situation for studies which must often have produced toxic or unpleasant fumes.


In spite of the primitive conditions and poorly developed state of the subject, chemistry instruction was in considerable demand in Paris. Dumas regularly lectured to audiences of a thousand, and applause was common during lectures.


Into this world came Wurtz. He was one of a small number of scientists who not only recognized that progress in chemistry was heavily dependent upon the sharing of knowledge between workers in different countries, but who had the linguistic skills and—eventually—the contacts to play a central role in this sharing.


These contacts were vital. Parisian university life appears to have been deeply inbred, at least in chemistry. When a professor chose to take up a chair at a different university, a sequence of moves might be triggered which would shift professors from one chair to another down the line. Although appointments were, in principle, based upon merit, movement up the pecking order was facilitated if one knew the right people; the development by Wurtz of suitable contacts, so crucial for advancement, is described in some detail by Rocke.


Indeed, the complex way in which Wurtz’s academic and personal lives were necessarily entwined forms perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this engrossing book. By developing the picture of Wurtz as a Parisian, rather than presenting a one-dimensional picture of him as a scientist, Rocke does far more than just catalogue Wurtz’s scientific achievements. Instead, this book provides an intriguing insight into life in Europe during the middle of the nineteenth century, and shows the way in which this environment strongly influenced the development of chemistry.


Nationalizing Science is at its heart a scientific biography. Although as biography the book has much to recommend it, the chemical background and achievements of the main characters are described in some detail. This is essential in order to appreciate fully the significance of, for example, the developments made by Liebig, or the difficulties faced by those trying to construct scientific theory at the time. However, the level of chemical terminology, while adding to the authority of the book, will probably restrict the readership to those with a chemical background.


Nationalizing Science is heavily researched, much of the background material gathered by the author while on extended visits to Paris There are footnotes on almost every page, and about one thousand footnotes in total. An extensive bibliography and index are included, together with a number of plates consisting mainly of images of scientists, or the buildings in which they worked.


In his introduction the author writes, “This book has, among its other goals, a biographical intent.” Indeed these are the words with which the book begins. Nationalizing Science is very much a biography, rather than a description of scientific research with a few personal details added as an afterthought; it is all the stronger as a result. This is a fascinating, challenging and engrossing book. Not only does it deserve to find its way onto the bookshelves of many chemists, once there it will surely be referred to over and over again.