The art of chemical illustration: from alchemy to chemistry in picture and story

The art of chemical illustration: from alchemy to chemistry in picture and story 

Arthur Greenberg

Hoboken, NJ, US: Wiley-Interscience | 2007 | 637pp | ?38.95 (HB) | ISBN 0471751545 

Reviewed by William Brock

Older chemists will recall the pleasure of dipping into two books by the Somerset organic chemist, John Read (1884-1963): Humour and humanism in chemistry  (1947) and The alchemist in life, literature and art  (1957).  

Read showed that chemistry was fun and that alchemical genre paintings, symbols and emblems had great visual power and appeal. Arthur Greenberg, another organic chemist and bibliophile at the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences of the University of New Hampshire, US, did something similar in his lively volumes A chemical history tour  (2001) and The art of chemistry  (2003). These two lavishly-illustrated volumes whet readers’ appetites with a gallery of attractive and intriguing pictures drawn not just from alchemy and early chemistry, but from title pages, diagrams, cigarette and baseball cards, works of art and, even, the clairvoyant chemistry of Victorian theosophists. Greenberg and his publisher have now merged the contents of these two volumes into the large and splendidly-produced art of chemical illustration. 

While not a scholarly historian of chemistry, Greenberg is a master of popularisation and a wise and practised educator. His lively choice of over 350 illustrations is embedded in about 200 short, witty (and often quirky) essays that offer the reader information, amusement and memorable stories. His illustrations and texts range through early practical chemistry and metallurgy, spiritual and allegorical alchemy and chymistry, early medical chemistry, the chemical revolution, colonial chemistry and nineteenth-century specialisation. He rounds the book off by dipping into more recent chemistry and the various attempts to teach and popularise chemistry in the past. Idiosyncratic, self-indulgent, and even corny, Greenberg, like Read, believes chemistry should be fun. His book can be strongly recommended for school and university libraries, as well as to aspiring and practising chemists generally. It will put a smile on the face on the way to the lab.