From medical chemistry to biochemistry

Robert E. Kohler, From medical chemistry to biochemistry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982).

“European ideals and American realities, 1870-1900”

Many early American chemists trained in Germany, and as a result, “American biochemical institutions between 1875 and 1900 strongly resembled German institutions.” (95)

This did not mean they were exactly the same, however; “opportunities were far more lacking in the United States… owing to the general lack of development of medical schools…” (96)

“On a lower professional level, agricultural and medical chemistry were the principal career options for biological chemists prior to 1900,” and this offered little opportunity for specialization. The market for chemists was a generalist’s. (96-97)

“Advanced courses usually concentrated on such practical applications as toxicology, clinical analysis, fertilizer and soil analysis, or animal nutrition rather than theoretical chemistry.” (97)

Victor C. Vaughan taught at University of Michigan Medical College from 1871-1921. Because this school was a medical school, the chemistry courses were oriented toward what would be useful for practicing doctors.

“Medical students were interested in chemistry only for its practical use in toxicology and urinalysis… [Preston B.] Rose’s course consisted largely of basic analytical chemistry plus urinalysis and was extremely popular.” (102)

When discussing the clout that “medical chemists” had in the 1880s & 90s (and why biochemistry was developed there rather than out of physiology), Kohler says that, “As expert analysts, medical chemists possessed indespensable service roles and had the closest connections with university science… and profited from the almost mystical faith of progressive clinicians in chemical diagnosis and therapeutics.” (105)

When the reform of medical schools began to be conceived, a course in laboratory chemistry was “a common sign of an improving spirit in the 1880s and 1890s, and the chair of chemistry was often the first to become a salaried chair.” (116)
Medical men understood that chemistry had great potential to add to their knowledge and healing power if integrating classes in chemistry (with an emphasis on laboratory analysis) was at the forefront of a revolution in medical education.

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