“The Most Difficult Part of Chemistry”

Notes, Summaries & Reviews, Thesis Research

Noel G. Coley, “Physicians, Chemists and the Analysis of Mineral Waters: ‘The Most Difficult Part of Chemistry,'” Medical History, Supplement no. 10 (1990): 56-66.

Coley approaches the historical practice of analyzing mineral waters as someone interested in the development and refinement of analytical chemistry techniques. This isn’t particularly useful for my research, but her work does provide a good historical account of what sorts of problems chemists have had in analyzing natural waters and what sorts of techniques they have used and developed.

The chief aims of mineral water analysis were to promote and improve their use in medicine, to identify impurities which ought to be removed from the waters before they were used in medical treatment, and, most important, to be able to prepare mixtures as nearly identical as possible to those mineral waters best known for their curative properties.” (57)

“Most of those who wrote on the subject in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were physicians practising medicine at one of the spas.” (57)
Not expert analytical chemists affiliated with universities? Interesting.

Chemists did not conceptualize the air as composed of gases with “distinct chemical identities” until the 18th century. (59)

“…a knowledge of the composition of mineral waters facilitated classification and enabled physicians to advise patients more reliably about their properties and uses…” (63)

William Prout, when hypothesizing about why naturally and artificially produced mineral waters sometimes produced different health effects, said that it was probably due to environmental factors — “The chief difference arose… from the absence of concomitant factors such as a fresh environment, diet, exercise, and new friendships which accompany a visit to a spa in its season.” (64)

Discusses the development of spectographic analysis by Robert Bunsen and Gustav Kirchhoff, asserting that it became important for those analyzing chemical waters in the 1860s. I don’t think I’ve seen this used in anything I’ve read about Americans analyzing mineral waters. Hm.

“The persistent belief that even minute traces of salts were essential to the medicinal properties of the waters promoted the search for greater sophistication and accuracy.” (66)

“The analysis of mineral waters provided a rationale for their use in medicine which supported the enthusiastic recommendations of physicians. Even where there seemed to be no obvious connection between the chemical constituents of the water and the medicinal virtues acclaimed for it, the very existence of a chemical analysis gave the water added appeal as a curative agent…” (66)

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