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The History of Chemistry. John Hudson. Macmillan (1993). ISBN 0-333-53551-0.
It seems that a number of introductory books on the history of science and, in particular, chemistry, have appeared recently and one hopes that they will be read. This book deserves to be read by all undergraduates studying chemistry and not just John Hudson's own students at Anglia University. Indeed, this book forms a very good introduction for anyone with a budding interest in the history of chemistry.
The first four chapters are taken up with the early history of the subject from the early craft traditions, through alchemy, to Phlogistic and Pneumatic Chemistry. These chapters really do set the scene and reveal how much modern chemistry depends on the techniques, language and ideas of these early scientists and technologists. The mystical and fraudulent aspects of alchemy are not ignored, but not allowed to detract from the importance of developments that the science made.
The other three-quarters of the book are devoted to chemistry post-Lavoisier, with later chapters broken down into developments in organic, inorganic, physical, and analytical chemistry respectively. As one might expect a chapter is devoted to the revolution in understanding that took place in the lifetime of Lavoisier. A chapter is also devoted to the Karlsruhe Conference of 1860 that also marked a watershed in the interpretation of chemical data. The last chapter looks at the developing role of chemists in industry and society and the responsibilities that they have taken on, often quite unintentionally.
Throughout the book short biographies of key figures are given in separate text boxes which means that the story being told can continue without interruption. There are plenty of drawings and illustrations, although no plates. What I enjoyed about the book was that, unlike more general histories of science, many strands in Chemistry are followed through carefully and given as much prominence as the more familiar tales of the discovery of elements and elucidation of atomic structure.
It seems, however, that towards the end of the nineteenth century the discoveries, theories and important characters come so thick and fast that to do them full justice would have required a work the size of Partington's, so they are somewhat skated over. Just three or four lines are given to each development and contribution, which is hardly enough to give a full explanation of the work, its significance or even the context of each discovery. Nevertheless, this cannot be helped since it is presumably Hudson's intention to stimulate interest and encourage the reader to pursue the stories in more detailed volumes. By not just dwelling on the most well known characters, Hudson tells the story in a gripping fashion and reveals the vast amount of work done in the last two hundred years by a remarkable collection of chemists. Knowledge of the work done by this noble band should give the chemists of the future pause for thought.
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