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Science In The Attic

Ah, early animal testing. The illustration to the right is from La Chimica in Famiglia

, an Italian book written in 1886 by Gustavo Milan, who aimed to teach chemistry to girls. The setup is that a wealthy chemist is introducing his granddaughter Faustina to chemistry by relating it to her daily tasks. This particular slide demonstrates nitrogen’s inability to sustain life. No worries, PETA, the bird is saved at the last minute. But the book is an interesting example of how science was being geared toward the fairer sex in centuries past. The page was thoughtfully passed on to me by Paul Bernasconi, a chemist at BASF and a longtime C&EN reader. I met Bernasconi at a recent dinner at a conference in Cambridge (Massachusetts, not the U.K.), and we got on the topic of old science books. He mentioned he had been accumulating old, often rare books on science and had some particularly interesting items on women and chemistry. He was kind enough to send me some pages from his collection.

In another section of Milan’s book, the chemistry of copper and its salts is introduced through the annual inspection of the family’s cookware:

He also sent along bits from Jane Marcet’s Conversations on Chemistry.

Here’s the opening page:

As you may notice, Marcet gets no byline on the opener. Here’s a little excerpt from the inside that gives a clue as to why her name isn’t splashed across the front:

How things have changed. Bernasconi also sends an illustration tracing from 1789 by Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze, the wife of Antoine Lavoisier, also known as the author of the first chemistry textbook. As Bernasconi notes, it is an apparatus to prepare hydrogen:

Bernasconi’s interest in these old books was piqued when he found Milan’s book in the attic of his grandparents’ house in southern Switzerland. His oldest find to date is a “book of secrets” from the 1500s, but his collection spans to the early 1960s. He says his soft spot is for works from the 1700s, which he calls “simply beautiful.”

Bernasconi’s obsession has its limits: His wife Agnes allows one expensive purchase per year. There’s room for exceptions in the case of a book emergency (his term, although I am very excited to hear that I am not the only one to experience book-purchasing related emergencies!).

If there are others out there with cool science-related collections, books or otherwise, give us a shout either in the comments or via e-mail. Maybe it’ll inspire the next C&ENtral Science entry!


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  • May 21st 200811:05
    by Carmen Drahl

    Awesome. What about antique periodic tables? Theodore Gray’s are nifty and all, but I’d love to see a pre-Technetium periodic table. Or maybe there are tables out there that include the names Mendeleev gave to the elements he predicted, like Ekasilicon (germanium). The analogy that comes to mind is looking at U.S. flags from around that same time (1870s, 1880s), watching the nation add more and more stars to the design.

  • May 23rd 200809:05
    by Antoinette Hayes

    I own a book titled “Cinchona in Java: The Story of Quinine” written in 1945 by Norman Taylor
    There is a line at the end of the book that really surprised me;
    Quote: “The recent synthesis of quinine by R.B. Woodward and W.E. Doering of Harvard University is a remarkable chemical triumph which has baffled science ever since the attempt by Perkin in England in 1856…”

    Then the paragraph goes on to say that the synthetic route is nothing more than a “curiosity” and will never be a pratical source of the drug.

    I thought this was a really interesting book and great commentary on the thinking of the time when natural products were still, for the most part, extracted and isolated from their source.
    This book is also one of the few books in English that I’ve found which has more than a page of text dedicated to the pharmacists and chemists, Joseph Pelletier 1788-1842 and Joseph Caventou 1795-1877, who were the first to isolate strychine, quinine, and a host of other alkaloids from their natural sources.

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