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hundred years of books that changed the course of chemistry on view
Lynn, Humanities Editor
(217) 333-2177; firstname.lastname@example.org
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Five
hundred years of books that changed the course of chemistry -- or made
it more interesting -- are now on display at the University of Illinois.
Among the books are a 500-year-old
forerunner to the "Physician's Desk Reference" and a 1624 illustrated
treatise by an author any child familiar with the popular Harry Potter
books would know.
The exhibit, "From Alchemy
to Chemistry: 500 Years of Rare and Interesting Books," runs through
April 28 in the Rare Book and Special Collections Library, 346 Main
Library, 1408 W. Gregory St., Urbana. It is free and open to the public.
Co-curators Tina Chrzastowski,
chemistry librarian; Gregory Girolami, professor of inorganic chemistry;
and Vera Mainz, spectroscopy lab manager in chemical sciences, culled
through hundreds of rare and fascinating books owned by the Rare Book
and the Chemistry libraries before choosing their top 36.
The books range from Hieronymus
Brunschwig's "Liber de arte distillandi" ["Book of the Art of Distillation"],
(1500) -- a precursor to today's PDR -- to Linus Pauling's "The Architecture
of Molecules," (1964) -- one of the last "coffee-table chemistry books,"
In their exhibit, the curators
tried to convey some of the major shifts in the study of chemistry --
not just the movement from alchemy to modern science -- but also the
way chemists changed the way they talked about their field.
In other words, one of the
themes of the exhibit is how chemists through the ages have used symbols
to depict compounds and chemicals -- sometimes as secret codes, as with
alchemists, sometimes in standardized nomenclature, as with chemists.
According to Mainz, that is one of the differences between alchemists
"I think of alchemists as
people who like to write about what they've done so that people know
they've done it, but they also write in riddles or codes so that other
people can't do what they've done," Mainz said. "Chemists, on the other
hand, want people to be able to reproduce what they've done. They want
people to give them more insight into the work they're doing."
Mainz said that several
of the books in the exhibit are extremely rare. For example, only four
copies of the Brunschwig first edition book have appeared worldwide
at auction in the last 40 years.
Mainz and her husband, Girolami,
had been aware of the famous book for many years, but had never seen
a copy of it until they saw the UI Rare Book and Special Collection's
copy. It is important because it is one of the earliest books on chemistry
and pharmacology, and was based on the author's study of some 3,000
The book blueprints herbal
remedies and contains an abundance of beautiful illustrations of plants
and of distillation apparatuses. Mainz notes that the exhibit celebrates
the anniversary of the publication of Brunschwig's book, May of 1500.
Other books on exhibit include:
-- "TraitŽ ŽlŽmentaire de chimie, prŽsentŽ dans un ordre nouveau et
d'aprs les dŽcouvertes modernes" ["Elementary Chemistry Treatise, presented
in a new order and after modern discoveries"], 1789, by Antoine Lavoisier,
the father of modern chemistry.
According to Mainz, Lavoisier
and his colleagues in France standardized the names for chemicals. Before
their work, she said, compounds were named for the places they came
from, "so that common table salt, for example, might have had dozens
of different names. Along came Lavoisier and in one fell swoop basically
said, 'This is what we're going to call these things.' That in itself
allowed for great progress in the field, because now everyone is on
the same page, everyone can talk to each other."
The two volumes are beautifully
illustrated by the carefully executed plates of Lavoisier's wife, a
highly skilled draftswoman, engraver and painter who studied with the
artist Louis David. Unfortunately, Lavoisier was beheaded not long after
publication of his book --"showing the danger," Mainz said, "of being
a tax collector during a revolutionary regime."
-- "His Exposition of the
Hieroglyphical Figures -- His Secret Booke of the Blessed Stone called
the Philosopher's," 1624, by Nicolas Flamel. Flamel is the alchemist
who appears in the Harry Potter books as the creator of the so-called
philosopher's stone [an imaginary substance sought by alchemists in
the belief it would change base metals into gold or silver]. Flamel's
book, which discusses the making of gold, focuses on alchemy's moral
and spiritual dimensions. The illustrations represent the process of
making the philosopher's stone, and "also are intended to promote Christian
morality and salvation," the exhibit catalog reports.
-- "Conversations on Chemistry,"
1809, by Jane Marcet. Marcet's book, which was published anonymously,
was a dialogue between two young ladies performing chemistry experiments.
Intended as a chemistry primer for "Dames' Schools," the book became
a best seller by the 1820s, with some 160,000 copies sold. Another chemist,
J.L. Comstock, decided that since sales were so good, he'd keep the
title, publish the classic, widely used text under his name, and market
it to boys' schools.
The curators purposely brought
items of human interest, such as the aforementioned, into the exhibit.
"There's hopefully something
interesting about the author as well as a little bit about what the
book represents for science," Mainz said, "so, viewers will get a laugh
or an insight into some of the people who changed chemistry."
The UI Rare Book and Special
Collections Library is open 8:30 a.m.- 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.