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A History of Chemistry

A History of Chemistry

Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent, Isabelle Stengers

Translated by Deborah Kurmes Van Dam

ISBN 9780674396593

Publication date: 12/01/1996

From the earliest use of fire to forge iron tools to the medieval alchemists’ search for the philosopher’s stone, the secrets of the elements have been pursued by human civilization. But, as the authors of this concise history remind us, “disciplines like physics and chemistry have not existed since the beginning of time; they have been built up little by little, and that does not happen without difficulties.” Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent and Isabelle Stengers present chemistry as a science in search of an identity, or rather as a science whose identity has changed in response to its relation to society and to other disciplines. The authors—respected, prolific scholars in history and philosophy of science—have distilled their knowledge into an accessible work, free of jargon. They have written a book deeply enthusiastic about the conceptual, experimental, and technological complexities and challenges with which chemists have grappled over many centuries.

Beginning with chemistry’s polymorphous beginnings, featuring many independent discoveries all over the globe, the narrative then moves to a discussion of chemistry’s niche in the eighteenth-century notion of Natural Philosophy and on to its nineteenth-century days as an exemplar of science as a means of reaching positive knowledge. The authors also address contentious issues of concern to contemporary scientists: whether chemistry has become a service science; whether its status has “declined” because its value lies in assisting the leading-edge research activities of molecular geneticists and materials scientists; or whether it is redefining its agenda.

A History of Chemistry treats chemistry as a study whose subject matter, the nature and behavior of qualitatively different materials, remains constant, while the methods and disciplinary boundaries of the science constantly shift.


  • How should the history of chemistry be written? The word ‘chemistry’ has its roots in Hellenistic Egypt, being centuries older than the comparative neologisms ‘physics’ and ‘biology’. Yet, even on this level, the sense of continuity can be deceptive… In view of this, any attempt to trace the history of science down the ages seems fraught with peculiar hazards. The authors of this book are well aware of the problems and confront them head-on, as they are well qualified to do… The key to their successful collaboration here is a willingness to recognize the fluid and unfinished identity of chemistry, its periodic remaking and realignment with the historical forces that have shaped it… This is a remarkable book: learned, thoughtful, and elegantly written and translated… Specialists…will…relish the imaginative picture of the history of chemistry it offers. For the chemists who will surely also be among its readers, the book conveys important lessons about the history of their science. And, for students and general readers, it conveys an enthusiasm for chemical ideas and discoveries that is quite infectious. The authors have aimed at a readership much wider than academic specialists, and they deserve to reach it.

    —Jan Golinski, Times Literary Supplement


  • Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent is Associate Professor at the University of Paris X, Nanterre.
  • Isabelle Stengers teaches philosophy of science at the Free University of Brussels.

Book Details

  • 313 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press