Chemistry, Medicine, and the Legitimization of English Spas, 1740-1840

Christopher Hamlin, “Chemistry, Medicine, and the Legitimization of English Spas, 1740-1840,” Medical History, Supplement No. 10 (1990): 67-81.

Hamlin, much like he does in A Science of Impurity, discusses the role of chemistry in the legitimization of health spas. He argues that their domination of the conversation was not due to any sort of revolution in techniques — there were actually a lot of widely recognized problems with analyzing mineral waters — but due to a myriad of factors that included the rise of the profession as a whole and individual chemists’ abilities to assert their ability to explain scientifically and objectively the concrete reasons for different spas’ medical effects.

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“The Most Difficult Part of Chemistry”

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.

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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)

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Transactions of the Twelfth Session of the AR State Medical Society (1887)

Transactions of the State Medical Society of Arkansas (Little Rock: Press Printing Company, 1887).

Annual Address of the President, James A. Dibrell, Sr. (Van Buren)

“What amazing wonders have not modern scientific investigations accomplished? What a grand display of dazzling brilliants have not been dug up hitherto dark, unfathomed recesses of nature, where Science sat gloomy and enshrouded in her lonely solitude? What a blazing light is chemistry! Old things are done away and the radiant new sheds its lustre over the world, bringing grand results from worlds of microscopic observations teeming with interest and benefit to mankind. True pathology follows in the wake of anatomic histology, and physiology determines with accuracy the therapeusis of medical agents in their different modes of actions on the different tissues. The study of the physiological effects of medicine is one of the great discoveries of the day. [Goes on about surgery for awhile] What has modern medicine not accomplished? It has in some countries, notably England, increased human longevity nearly five per cent. Thus the time is not far distant when man shall live to the period assigned by the Creator, or until the organisms wear out and fail by long work. The same spirit which led medical men to sacrifice their lives in services to the poor, has led them to study enthusiastically and publish the minutes of their study to the world in the interests of humanity. [Discusses diseases traced to sewer gas, dirty water, “educational over-pressure,” contact with disease, and vaccination]” (18-19)

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A Science of Impurity

Christopher Hamlin, A Science of Impurity: Water Analysis in Nineteenth Century Britain (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).

In a case study of the political, social, cultural, and newly scientific conversation surrounding concerns about water quality in 19th century England, Christopher Hamlin shows that through the powerful claim at absolute, unbiased, and natural knowledge, science (especially chemistry) was used as a way of arguing for different standards and policies.

Hamlin points out something very interesting in his introduction. The 19th century is often seen as home to “the great watershed in environmental medicine, separating a pre-scientific period in which medicine could offer little more than a false cultural authority from the contemporary period of scientific precision where the authority is real,” an idea he takes as “unsatisfactory.” (3)

His first argument against the above narrative was the precarious financial situation of scientists, who often couldn’t count on their professorships to pay the bills if they weren’t already independently wealthy (a situation probably even more common in the US than in Britain). He cites chemists specifically, who often felt the need to accumulate side acts; “as consultants, witnesses, authors, entrepreneurs, as well as teachers.” This may help explain the historical record I’ve uncovered of Dr. Juan H. Wright, who seemed to have made a career (or at least part of one) by providing chemical analyses of springs around the midwest.

Chapter one deals with the chemistry behind mineral water analysis, breaking early- to mid-19th century strategies down into three contemporaneously recognized categories; physical examination (smell, taste, color, observed medicinal properties), “qualitative examination through the use of reagents, and a quantitative analysis of the evaporative residue.” (24-27) All were generally employed, although the last two were considered more scientifically telling. Hamlin makes clear that there was much debate within chemistry itself as to which tests were the most useful, when they should be employed, and how accurate they were. There seems to have been a lot of concern about how the tests themselves might alter the water and about whether certain combinations of chemicals in the water could affect a test’s outcome.

Interestingly, due to the way chemical reactions were understood before the late 19th century, when discussing medicinal benefits of waters chemists did not often take into account how the water’s contents may interact chemically within the human body. Physicians (and by extension spa proprietors and customers/patients) were used to working under the assumption that it was the salts, not ions, contained within mineral waters that were responsible for their medicinal value. The uncertainty-driven debates within the community of analytical chemists were not comfortable or economically valuable for those seeking water analyses, so they were generally glossed over and older conventions (tables of salts instead of ions) used. (36-37)

Chapter two, “Water Analysis and the Hegemony of Chemistry, 1800-40,” contains a lot of work that helps to clear up some of the stuff I’ve been seeing in my primary sources. Hamlin begins by briefly describing the rise of “trained ‘practical’ chemists” who did not limit their work to exploration and discovery but applied chemical techniques to “industry, commerce, government, law, and education.” (47) A more prominent role in society meant that these men were gaining authority, but how? Hamlin argues it was not because of “the progress of pure chemistry,” but rather due to “a combination of social needs and aggressive marketing…” (48)

Hamlin contends that a new kind of chemist — embodied by his two examples, William Thomas Brande and Alfred Swaine Taylor — emerged at the beginning of the 19th century whose contributions to original research were scanty but whose public presence and ability to sell chemistry as the answer to many of society’s most pressing problems was impressive. “…with decent laboratory skills, passing familiarity with the contents of the journals, tolerable lecturing talents, good connections, and untouchable confidence, one could make a decent living in London as a practical chemist.” (50) Oftentimes these men were hired by people with a vested interest in the medicinal benefits of the spa, and they would publish their results in both scientific journals and pamphlets for the springs. Many “pure” chemists (i.e., Humphry Davy) found these men problematic and quackish, but Hamlin is careful to state that the modern distinction between pure and applied science was in its infancy. Not every chemist and certainly not every layperson would have recognized this as bad chemistry, which helps to explain why the conflicts of interest were not seen as horrendously problematic. Another consideration is the kind of science these men thought they were doing; if they could gather enough analyses, payed for by whomever and for whatever reason, they may be able to draw larger conclusions from the data. Hamlin terms this “Baconian” science and argues that it helps to explain the willingness for chemists and doctors to accept what we would consider biased information as probable fact.

Though he does not explain in detail how these men made themselves visible to spa proprietors or physicians, Hamlin does argue that chemists became an important vehicle for providing scientific legitimization to the medical claims being made about mineral waters. It allowed comparisons to be made between mineral waters (OUR springs contain similar elements to Baden-Baden, and they’re found in your backyard!) and “symbolized that someone knew what was going on, that the medicinal environment one was to encounter was comprehended and would be applied in a precise and rational way.” (54) Chemists would often provide an analysis, then immediately below state possible medicinal benefits of the waters without explaining how the two connected; Hamlin argues that this is because it would have been understood by wealthy client or physician, and for the rest, that “it was the appearance of thoroughness that was to impress the reader.” (54)

The next section deals with attempts at synthesizing mineral waters, which is interesting but not immediately relevant. Maybe come back to this later?

Another facet of the relationship between chemists and doctors in the testing of mineral waters was which set of knowledge to begin from. Doctors and some chemists believed that it was the chemist’s job to take the observed medicinal effects of the water and explain them with an analysis. If the analysis yielded results that didn’t make sense, it must be a problem with the chemist’s method. Some, however, thought that “chemical composition was the only thing that could be empirically determined.” (60) Claims about medical benefits were unfounded assertions based on testimonial, and so it must be that medical benefits should be deduced from the chemical composition of the waters. We see again that the patient’s narrative is taken out of the equation in an attempt at an objective, scientific truth.

This context helps to explain some of the analyses in pamphlets and government documents alike that read like advertisements at times and situates the chemistry these men were doing in the context of practical and analytical chemistry. I wonder to what extent Hamlin’s conclusions carry over to the American situation and plan on supplementing this book with one about American chemistry. In reading the quotes he provides from his primary sources and seeing the format of the tables, however, it seems to me that the situation I’m working with is very similar to 19th century England.

Mineral springs survey texts, USGS

Albert C. Peale, “Mineral Waters,” in Department of the Interior, United States Geological Survey, Mineral Resources of the United States Calendar Year 1885 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1886).

Mentions ES in AR section

Albert C. Peale, List and Analyses of the Mineral Springs of the United States,” in Department of the Interior, Bulletin of the United States Geological Survey no. 32 (Washington, Government Printing Office, 1886).

Arkansas’ Entry (1, 2)

Basin Spring Analysis

Albert C. Peale, “Natural Mineral Waters of the United States in Part II. Accompanying Papers, of The Fourteenth Annual Report of the Director of the United States Geological Survey in J. W. Powell, dir., The Fourtheenth Annual Report of the United States Geological Survey, 1892-’93 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1894).

List of American Mineral Spring Resorts, under Arkansas

David T. Day, “Part IV. Mineral Resources of the United States, 1894, Non-Metallic Products,” Sixteenth Annual Report of the United States Geological Survey, 1894-95 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1895).

Mineral waters, List of Commercial Springs, under Arkansas

James K. Crook, The Mineral Waters of the United States and their Therapeutic Uses with an Account of the Various Mineral Spring Localities, their Advantages as Health Resorts, Means of Access, Etc. (New York & Philadelphia: Lea & Brothers Co., 1899).

Eureka Springs’s Entry (1, 2)

Analysis of Crescent, Dairy, Basin, Magnetic Springs & climactic chart by Dr. John D. Jordan







“Laboratory Design and the Aim of Science: Andreas Libavius versus Tycho Brahe,” Owen Hannaway

            After stressing the significance of the development of the laboratory, author Owen Hannaway structures his article around the disparate plans for two scientists’ places of work: those of Andreas Libavius, a chemist, and Tycho Brahe, the famed astronomer. The two men had very different ideas of what their duties as scientists were, and the layout of their labs suggested this. Brahe, who preferred to work in isolation, not sharing his ideas with many others, housed his laboratory in the basement of the structure he had built to observe the heavens. Libavius, on the other hand, believed that scientists also had humanistic civic and paternal duties, and he placed his lab on the main floor of his design, directly attached to and accessible from the more public areas of the home. Both laboratory designs give the historian unique insight into “the intellectual and ideological roots of a new mode of scientific life.”[1]

“The House of Experiment in Seventeenth Century England,” Steven Shapin

            The space in which scientific queries take place, coupled with who is allowed in that space and how knowledge from that space is disseminated to society as a whole, have major implications for the way in which historians analyze scientific knowledge. This idea is the impetus for Steven Shapin’s microhistorical account of the development of such spaces in seventeenth century England. He discusses how the culture of the period shaped the evolution of scientific space; the obligation of “gentlemen” to open their private residences to men of equal position provided the basis for how early experimental science was performed and discussed. Gentlemen were free to come and investigate one another’s labs and bear witness to the kinds of work being done. Once these experiments were refined, they were welcomed into a space where the implications of the phenomena illuminated could be discussed between men of social standing (and thus worth trusting, since being a gentleman bound men to a certain standard of behavior). Thus, the culture and society these early men of science were a part of had a major impact on how they conducted science.

“Pavlov’s Physiology Factor,” Daniel P. Todes

            In his article on Pavlov’s laboratory between 1891 and 1904, Daniel Todes elucidates the particular kind (and volume) of knowledge, product, and technologies the Russian physiologist was able to produce due to the structure and methods employed in his lab. Pavlov’s authority in conjunction with the freedom his assistants had in conducting and recording the results of their own experiments created a unique dynamic in which individual observations, under the direction of Pavlov’s own methods, were discussed and analyzed by the entire lab — and the entire lab was responsible for the creation of overarching theories and ideas. His methods granted Pavlov authority on many levels: his many coworkers could offer testimonies, theories were constructed based on the experimental and to some extent intellectual contributions of many scientists, and new technologies gave credence to the data gathered. The products of the lab — gastric juices, publications, and alumni — extended Pavlov’s influence and importance. Due to its singular characteristics, which included a plethora of incoming and outgoing fledgling lab technicians with different skill sets, the relationships between coworkers and those between coworkers and master, and the cohesiveness of the lab as a whole, Pavlov’s laboratory was able to sustain a mechanism that generated unique and important products.

“Industrial Versailles: Eero Saarinen’s Corporate Campuses for GM, IBM, and AT&T,” Scott G. Knowles and Stuart W. Leslie

            In “Industrial Versailles,” authors Scott Knowles and Stuart Leslie tell the story of the post-war “corporate campuses” built by GM, IBM and AT&T by the renowned architect Eero Saarinen. Saarinen’s work created spaces in which “basic science” could be performed, and yet these spaces were designed not with the scientists’ vision in mind, but their corporate patrons. As such they were very much focused on a fabricated image of scientific modernity; instead of promoting collaboration between different departments, they tended to isolate scientists in peaceful and serene offices. Research facilities that promoted collaboration, on the other hand, produced some of the most important advances of the period. As the 50s transitioned into the much more competitive 80s, these spaces designed for “basic science” increasingly became liabilities to companies that were not focusing more of their money on the practical applications of basic scientific discoveries. These “corporate campuses” thus fell short of their intended purposes, representing more of a corporate ideal of scientific discovery.

Image and Logic: A Material Culture of Microphysics, Peter Galison

            Peter Galison attempts to tell a history of physics through an alternative method that he claims traces the changing meanings of “experiment” through time; he recounts the history of machines, or technology, that physicists (and the copious other individuals involved in the experimental process) have used to garner scientific knowledge. Machines have changed the nature of experimentation fundamentally, a phenomenon Galison argues was not unique to any period in history, but continues to take place today. What does and does not count as valid experimental knowledge is in a constant state of debate, and these arguments are more fundamentally about what constitutes an “experiment.” Who and what are involved, and what sorts of constraints affect the type and function of the results? How do members of vastly different “subcultures” communicate, and how does this affect the experimental methods they use? Galison attempts to explore these questions through a history of the machines of the laboratory.

Authors with an obvious constructivist outlook, as elucidated in Jan Golinski’s Making Natural Knowledge, wrote the readings for this week. They emphasize the importance of places and materials involved in the research process, and they place scientists in the social and cultural context in which they were working. Galison’s piece on the machine in the modern physics lab was certainly of the same methodological approach as Bruno Latour’s chapter on “Visualization and Cognition.” Both ascribed importance to the inanimate participators in scientific investigation. Pavlov’s laboratory, and the products it was able to generate, were clearly possible in no small part due to the many Russian doctors who wanted to obtain an easy PhD; the recognition of these social factors as important pieces in the puzzle of what influences scientific research is a clear indicator that Todes shared the beliefs of the Strong Program. This week, I have seen how the revolution in the history of science initiated by Thomas Kuhn has manifested itself in the works written by more recent historians.

Something interesting (and something I will probably bring up in class) that I noticed is that, when constructivist historians look at the different locales, instruments, and cultural influences involved in the production of scientific knowledge, their conversations typically concern how these factors have affected the way in which scientists communicate. Galison talks about how different machines changed the way that scientists talked to one another and other classes of individuals involved in the research process; Knowles and Leslie discuss how different layouts for corporate laboratories either promoted or stifled communication between scientists; Shapin is concerned in his article about how the concept of the unspoken gentlemen’s code promoted scientific exchange. It appears that what lies at the heart of all of these moving pieces involved in the experimental process is how effectively machines, social conventions, economic motivations, etc., promote or depress scientists’ ability to collaborate with one another. Could it be that this is what the constructivists are getting at?

[1] Owen Hannaway, “Laboratory Design and the Aim of Science: Andreas Libavius versus Tycho Brahe,” The History of Science Society 77, no. 4 (1986): 587.