Conference Theme


Biographies—whether in the form of books or articles—have always been an important genre in the history of chemistry. General histories of chemistry have often taken a biographical approach, most notably the four volume work of J. R. Partington. Many chemists, especially in the German-speaking world, have written autobiographies which along with the formal obituaries produced by national academies of science have formed an important source of information for historians of chemistry. More recently the American Chemical Society published the “Profiles, Pathways and Dreams” series which extended the autobiographical form up to the end of the 20th century. For several decades in the latter half of the 20th century, professional historians of chemistry avoided the biographical approach as being inherently too hagiographical and “Whiggish”. However following the pioneering work of scholars in the history of physics, notably Crosbie Smith and Norton Wise, Energy and Empire: A Biographical Study of Lord Kelvin (1989), the biography has been taken up anew as a framework for analysing thematic problems and social-cultural questions. This conference will critically examine this conceptual “turn” in the historiography of chemistry and explore ways in which the biographical approach can be fruitfully employed by historians of chemistry.

The conference will embrace all aspects of the history of alchemy and chemistry including the history of materials and the history of biochemistry. Papers might address:

1. Autobiographies as a source for historians of chemistry

2. Biography and discipline building

3. Biographies and nationalism

4. The making and unmaking of chemical heroes

5. Myths and misrepresentation

6. Iconography as a mode of representation in the visual arts, sculpture and photography

7. The historiography of the biographical mode

8. Collective biographies including biographical dictionaries and the “biographies” of research groups