The Chemical Educator, Vol. 7, No. 3, S1430-4171(02)03568-7, 10.1007/s00897020568a, © 2002 Springer-Verlag New York, Inc.

Chemistry, Society and Environment: A New History of the British Chemical Industry. Edited by Colin A. Russell. The Royal Society of Chemistry: Cambridge, England, 2000; Illustrations. xvi + 372 pp. 14.1 ´ 20.4 cm. $120.00; £65.00. ISBN 0-85404-599-6.

George B. Kauffman, California State University, Fresno,

During the past few years several book-length studies of various historical aspects of the European chemical industry have been published. From Kluwer Academic Publishers alone no fewer than three books have appeared—Determinants in the Evolution of the European Chemical Industry, 1900-1939: New Technologies, Political Frameworks, Markets and Companies (Travis, A. S.; Schröter, H. G.; Homberg, E.; Morris, P. J. T., eds., 1998); The Chemical Industry in Europe, 1850-1914: Industrial Growth, Pollution, and Professionalization (Homberg, E.; Travis, A. S.; Schröter, H. G., eds., 1998); and The German Chemical Industry in the Twentieth Century (Lesch, J. E., ed., 2000), Volumes 16, 17, and 18 in the “Chemists and Chemistry” series, respectively.

Similarly, a number of historical studies of the British chemical industry have been made, some dealing with the topic as a whole, and a greater number concentrating on individual companies. Although some focus on technical detail, economic issues, and the scientists and industrialists involved, few have tried to analyze the industry’s effects on society as a whole. Also, many of these books, written before the current epidemic of chemophobia and general anti-science resentment, a time when the DuPont motto was “Better things for better living through chemistry,” presented the industry as entirely benevolent and deserving of public support and encouragement. Another shortcoming of these earlier studies was the lack of serious analysis of the industry’s impact on the environment, a term rarely used before the 1960s. Clearly, a serious, balanced, book-length study of the British chemical industry’s effect on both society and the environment was sorely needed.

Colin A. Russell, Emeritus and Visiting Research Professor, Department of History of Science and Technology, the Open University, and Affiliated Research Scholar, Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge, has managed to combine successfully his religious beliefs with his interest in the history of science. He has expounded his goal of humanity’s acting as God’s steward in cherishing and preserving the environment in recent books such as Science and Religious Belief: A Selection of Recent Historical Studies (Hodder & Stoughten) and The Earth, Humanity, and God: The Templeton Lectures (University College London Press; now Taylor & Francis). Thus he is the ideal scholar to have edited the “new” history under review here.

Although he had the final editorial responsibilities, Russell was aided by three other authors, who, like him, were members of the History of Chemistry Research Group in the Department of History of Science and Technology at the Open University—the late W. A. Campbell (also of the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne), Noel G. Coley, and S. A. H. Wilmot (also of the University of Cambridge). Acting as a team, the four correlated their chapters by correspondence and meetings. However, because they realized that persons with a selective interest in the material might not wish to read through the entire book, they intentionally allowed a small amount of overlap between some chapters so that each essay is complete in itself.

An idea of the book’s scope and breadth can be glimpsed from the titles, authors, and lengths of its 11 chapters:

1.  “Records of the British Chemical Industry” (CAR) (12 pp., the shortest chapter)

2.  “The Shape of the British Chemical Industry” (NGC) (28 pp.)

3.  “Origins of the British Chemical Industry” (NGC) (31 pp.)

4.  “The Alkali Industry” (WAC) (32 pp.)

5.  “The Nitrogen Industry” (WAC) (26 pp.)

6.  “The British Pharmaceutical Industry” (NGC) (24 pp.)

7.  “General and Fine Inorganic Chemicals” (WAC) (40 pp.)

8.  “The Organic Chemicals Industry to the First World War” (CAR) (42 pp.)

9.  “The Age of Polymers and Petrochemicals (Industrial Organic Chemistry from 1914)” (CAR) (31 pp.)

10. “Metal Extraction and Refining” (CAR & SAHW) (48 pp., the longest chapter)

11. “Chemical Industry and the Quality of Life” (NGC & SAHW) (31 pp.)

Although the authors were all concerned with a number of fairly sensitive issues, they refrained from apologetics and tried to present as fair and objective an assessment of the entire history of the industry as possible. However, their “warts and all” picture of the industry results in a far better image than it currently “enjoys” with the general public. Since the four assumed that most readers would have some acquaintance with chemistry, they included chemical terminology, formulas, equations, and reaction schemes wherever appropriate.

Replete with 16 tables, 13 figures, and 147 illustrations—portraits, products, equipment, flow sheets, buildings, factories, advertisements, woodcuts, receipts, caricatures, plant workers, refineries, damage from pollution and explosion, means of transportation, aircraft, furnaces, bridges, and smelters, this volume is extensively documented with primary and secondary sources as recent as 1999. Indexes of persons (with dates of birth and death) (6 double-column pages) and subjects (16 double-column pages) facilitate location of material.

This volume will be of invaluable interest to historians of chemistry and of science, academic and industrial chemists, industrialists, politicians, science policy makers, and anyone concerned with the social and environmental impacts of the British chemical industry. To assess the effects of the industry on Britain now and in the future, such persons will require an understanding of what it has done in the past. For this purpose I recommend this authoritative, scholarly, but eminently readable history.