Changing opinions of chemistry should give us something to think about for the future, Colin Russell contends.

Changing opinions of chemistry should give us something to think about for the future, Colin Russell contends.

It seems that chemistry, like many other things in the modern world, has endured something of a see-saw in its popular image. At present it is fairly low down in the popularity stakes, though whether this is fair is much open to contention. It may help people who care about chemistry to glance briefly at the main changes in its public image, noting no less than four major slumps in esteem that may justifiably be called crises. 

1. Fraudulent alchemists 
In the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries the prominence of alchemy led to the first peak of public hostility to chemistry. Members of the chemical profession who ruefully reflect on the way the public sometimes esteems their work could do worse than recall the reputation of two alchemists satirised in Chaucer’s Canon’s yeoman’s tale. The one, a simple-minded cleric of ’sluttish’ appearance and ruined complexion, was known by ’smell of brimstone’ and ’stinking as a goat’. The other, an unscrupulous con-man, earned the description: ’this fiendly wretch, this false canon - the foul fiend him fetch!’ 

Since then alchemists have been reviled repeatedly on the same grounds: pollution and pretence and, though the language is more moderate, today’s chemists may face accusations of a similar kind. The issues are fundamentally the same as in Chaucer’s day. Any chemical operation has the potential to harm the environment, even though this may be limited to unsavoury odours clinging to one’s clothes. And the profit motive in any manufacturing process - chemical or otherwise - inevitably carries with it the risk of deceiving the public in order to minimise subsequent costs. 

In fact the image of chemistry recovered considerably with the decline of alchemy. For several hundred years following the Middle Ages chemistry was largely ignored because its effects on society were minimal. During this quiescent period some chemists had a bad time, though it was rarely for chemical reasons. Priestley lost his house and Lavoisier his head for largely political reasons. 

2. Acid gas and industry 
The age of tolerance drew to an end with the coming of the Industrial Revolution. By about 1800 public antipathy to chemistry was starting to climb to a new and second peak. The most obvious cause was the proliferation of alkali works spewing into the atmosphere torrents of unpleasant gases, of which hydrogen chloride caused the most visible damage. 

At that time there was no major use for the hydrogen chloride, so it was let into the atmosphere with predictable consequences. There was immense deterioration in the quality of air breathed by those unfortunate enough to live near the chemical works, destruction of vegetable matter including crops, and corrosion of buildings, iron railings and so on. 

James Muspratt established an alkali works on Merseyside in the 1820s and within a few years was being vigorously prosecuted by local landowners and others (Chem. Br., August 1993, p684). His solution was to move his works from one parish to another, and let the lengthy legal process take its course once more before moving on again. Nimby-ism (’not in my back yard’) had begun. Others, like Charles Tennant on the Clyde, sought to minimise the damage by building ever higher chimneys, culminating in the 128m high ’Tennant’s Stalk’. The corrosive gases simply did their damage somewhere else. It was a striking symbol of a new and unwelcome image for industrial chemistry. 

By the mid-1800s the public was becoming much more aware of the potential harm caused by the application of chemistry. So great was the public pressure that, in 1863, the government passed the first Alkali Act, which directed that alkali works should condense at least 95 per cent of the hydrogen chloride from all gases emitted into the atmosphere (using the towers invented by Gossage in 1836). 

An Alkali Inspectorate was established with the almost unprecedented right to enter and inspect industrial premises in order to protect private property. A further Act of 1874 extended legislation to other kinds of chemical works and to other noxious gases. 

Of course these Acts did not solve all the problems. They did not deal with all the causes of pollution, most notably the mountains of semi-solid calcium sulphide from soda manufacture which, if they did not seep into the water supply, slowly but inexorably gave off hydrogen sulphide. Moreover there was a ceaseless stream of polluted effluent entering the rivers near most chemical works, some a byproduct of cleaning up the effluent gases. 

Nor could legislation eliminate the mercenary instincts of some of the most successful proprietors. The modern catch-phrase ’economic gain by environmental loss’ has a sad appropriateness to the Victorian chemical industry. 

Modern supporters of the anti-science lobby frequently imagine the rise of the modern chemical industry as the beginning of an almost continuous process of atmospheric and river pollution, with the vested interests of a few wealthy landowners offering the only deterrent to wholesale plunder of the environment by chemistry. They are wrong. This period, about halfway through Victoria’s reign, represents a turning-point in the public appreciation of chemistry, and its image as a continuing arch-polluter is an invention of the 1960s. There are several reasons why they are mistaken. 

In the first place, chemistry was putting its own house in order. The Alkali Inspectors were highly skilled analysts, and so were many of the chemists recruited to the service of industry in the newly formed technical laboratories. John Glover, a chemist from Tyneside, devised a means of removing oxides of nitrogen from the effluent gases in the lead chamber process for sulphuric acid, with immense benefit to the environment as well as economic advantage for the manufacturer. Yet Glover declined to patent his process and shared it openly with rivals. 

Secondly, there are several cases on record of manufacturers taking the initiative and demanding more, not less, stringent controls. The alkali manufacturer John Lomas, and author of a standard text on the subject, was a realist: 

The injudicious attempt is often made to prove that the alkali trade, as at present carried on, is no nuisance at all, and this in face of all the devastation in the neighbourhood of the works. A far wiser plan would be for manufacturers to acknowledge the danger, and reduce the evil to a minimum by the adoption of every practical means of condensation.

Still more radical in its pleas for ’further and enlightened legislation’ was a clarion call addressed by the president of the Tyne Chemical Society to his fellow manufacturers: 

To an ordinarily simple-minded individual, it seems neither unreasonable nor unfair that the manufacturer should be pressed to keep his smells and his miscellaneous nuisances to himself. And most must agree that however little else some of us may be heir to, we have all at least a divine inheritance-if not a prescriptive right-in air and water undefiled. 

A third reason exists for a broader view of Victorian chemistry. From around the 1860s chemistry began not only to slough off its image of polluting monster, but to acquire a glamour and popularity amongst working men that led to a dominant position amongst all the sciences and indeed other subjects studied at mechanics’ institutes and elsewhere. It is unlikely that even the growing ’usefulness’ of chemistry could have given it such a dramatic appeal to the masses if it was self-evidently poisoning the very air they breathed and the water they drank. 

A fourth reason for jettisoning the image of industrial chemistry as an irresponsible polluter, loathed by everyone in Britain, is the simple evidence for a growing public tolerance. This is partly due to the emergence of a new kind of literature, books written not as textbooks but as expositions of chemical progress for a lay public. Thus in 1918 R. B. Pilcher, produced a book of this kind, What industry owes to chemical science, and two years earlier another book had appeared, Chemistry in the service of man, by Alexander Findlay. His avowed intention was to give ’some account of what the science of chemistry, both in its general principles and in its industrial applications, has accomplished for the material well-being and uplifting of mankind’. Findlay’s book was an outstanding success, a seventh edition appearing as late as 1947. As he said: 

Great as have been the suffering and destruction of life brought about by the misuse of the discoveries of chemists, very much greater have been the relief from suffering and the saving of life which their discoveries have made possible. 

3. Nuclear disenchantment 
The years immediately following World War II were overshadowed by the beginning of the nuclear arms race. After the atomic bombs over Japan, the US declined to share any atomic secrets, even with Britain, and in the UK research into an ’atomic deterrent’ was pursued by both Conservative and Labour governments. Such was the secrecy involved that public opposition was minimal. 

It was to be another 10 years before the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament emerged, and with it a wider disenchantment with science generally and nuclear chemistry in particular. Some (not necessarily in CND) found it difficult to distinguish between civilian and military uses of nuclear power. On the whole the image of chemistry was not too badly dented. Partly this arose from the [false] impression that nuclear science was chiefly physics. 

It seems clear that, despite the post-war benefits brought by new petrochemical products, opposition to nuclear science promoted a wider disenchantment with science in general in the 1950s. Of course chemistry participated in the ’swing from science’ that owed more to ideology than to any specific hazard associated with chemical research. Meanwhile almost no one mentioned ’the environment’. But the 1950s were only to be the calm before the storm. 

4. Enter ’the environment’ 
An assault of unparalleled ferocity was launched on to chemistry and the chemical industry in the early 1960s. 

Its effects are with us to this day. But it was not from economics that the big challenge came. Far more serious, especially for chemistry, was the challenge over the environment. In 1962 an American marine biologist who had been working with the US Fish and Wildlife Service produced another book. She was an accomplished author and had already written several delightful works on natural history. This one was different. Rachel Carson’s Silent spring proved to be a veritable time-bomb, a catalyst for a number of hugely important cultural changes, among them a reappraisal of the role of science and technology in our modern society. It represents a watershed in the public appreciation of chemistry and it brings to the fore the concept of environment, together with a respectful recognition of ecology. The latter was not, of course, a new science, nor was ’the environment’ invented (or discovered) in the 1960s. Concepts of what we might call ’environmental protection’ were, as we have seen, circulating 100 years before, though not by that name. 

The main thrust of Silent spring was the danger to wildlife from chemicals deployed in agriculture, particularly insecticides like DDT. Song birds were especially sensitive, being unable to metabolise most of those ingested with food, so giving rise to the phenomenon of bioaccumulation. So many birds were found dying or dead with high organochlorine residues, or were producing eggs with unacceptably thin shells, that a day might arise when no more bird song would be heard. There would be a ’silent spring’. 

Such a phrase has high rhetorical value, and the prospect aroused deep emotions in nature-lovers around the world. An environmentalist lobby orchestrated demands for action and in due course the US government responded, first restricting and then banning DDT. Environmentalists were jubilant and crusades for still more far-reaching action were mounted. 

Not all responses to Silent spring were as favourable. Not surprisingly the chemical industry reacted strongly, with conferences, brochures and press releases, although not always in a tone of calm rational argument. A more temperate response came later from the American Chemical Society. The Silent spring controversy was only the beginning of a long dispute between environmentalists and chemists on the merits or otherwise of the presence of ’chemicals’ in the wide world generally. 

Into the future 
Thus today it seems that chemistry is in one of its periodic troughs of unpopularity. To take appropriate action must surely mean recognising the historical causes, and learning from past mistakes and successes. There are two ways in which this can be done. The first is to engage the environmentalist challenge frontally and frankly. This may need admitting past mistakes and all attempts at cover-up, whether by governments (as at Chernobyl), corporations (as at Bhopal) or individuals. We must also be prepared to expose the underlying fallacies of some anti-chemical propaganda such as the belief that anything ’natural’ is good and anything artificial or ’chemical’ is bad or the bizarre notion that chlorine is ’the devil’s element’ because it occurs in so many insecticides. 

Our other strategy must obviously be to promote the positive image of chemistry today. Ignored by many historians, misrepresented by its opponents, and largely unknown to the general public, the industry can be enormously proud of its achievements. Not only is it a major revenue-earner for the state, it has also conferred highly beneficial effects on society, from the Industrial Revolution onwards. For all its mistakes, to say nothing of its often lack-lustre response to criticism, the chemical industry is a prime example of science employed in the service of humanity. 

Source: Chemistry in Britain


Colin Russell is emeritus professor in the history of science at the Open University, and affiliated research scholar at the department of history and philosophy of science, University of Cambridge. 

This article is based on part of a chapter in The new chemistry, Nina Hall (ed), Cambridge: CUP, 2000. 

Further Reading

  • Chemistry, society and the environment, C. A. Russell (ed) Cambridge: RSC, 2000. 
  • Understanding our environment: an introduction to environmental chemistry and pollution, R. M. Harrison (ed), 2nd edn. RSC: London, 1992; The chemical industry - friend to the environment?, J. A. G. Drake (ed). RSC: Cambridge, 1992. 
  • The Earth, humanity and God, C. A. Russell. UCL Press: London, 1994, p58.