ACS's History Division Celebrates 85 Years | April 30, 2007 Issue - Vol. 85 Issue 18 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 85 Issue 18 | p. 34
Issue Date: April 30, 2007

ACS's History Division Celebrates 85 Years

Speakers relate the past and present to the future at a symposium in Chicago
Department: ACS News
Smith (left) and Browne discussed Priestley under a tree in Chicago.
Credit: Edgar Fahs Smith Collection (U Penn Library)
Smith (left) and Browne discussed Priestley under a tree in Chicago.
Credit: Edgar Fahs Smith Collection (U Penn Library)

In September 1920, two professors attending the American Chemical Society national meeting in a sweltering Chicago gymnasium went outside for a breath of fresh air. Edgar Fahs Smith and Charles Albert Browne sat down under a tree on Northwestern University's campus in the city. They shared a mutual interest in Joseph Priestley, one of the giants in the history of chemistry, and they wondered who else among them also was historically inclined.

Smith arranged for an informal gathering on the history of chemistry at the national meeting that was held a year later in New York City. He had expected about a half-dozen "kindred spirits" to join him, but more than 100 arrived. ACS established a provisional division soon thereafter.

This year, the ACS Division of the History of Chemistry (HIST) commemorates its 85th anniversary. The celebration didn't include a cake and candles and is actually a year late, according to division officials. But they noted how fitting it was to return to the ACS national meeting in Chicago for a historical symposium.

"HIST has endured for 85 years, not without its ups and downs, but nevertheless a viable and venerable institution of chemists, by chemists, and for chemists," said James J. Bohning, the division's historian.

Several symposium speakers addressed the importance of knowing the history of chemistry. Bohning quoted organic chemist Forris Jewett Moore, who wrote in 1918: "As we study how man's knowledge of nature has broadened and deepened with the years, we acquire a better understanding of the trend of thought in our own times and of the exact bearing of each new discovery upon the old but ever recurring problems of the science."

Bohning noted that starting in the 1920s, chemists believed that knowing the history of their field was in part what distinguished a chemist who was merely "trained" as a chemist from one who was truly "educated" and could bring out an appreciation for chemistry in nonchemists.

Considering that HIST has always had a very small membership, the division's achievements have been substantial. HIST has won two ChemLuminary Awards, which honor outstanding volunteer service. Among its activities, the division has sponsored programming at national meetings and several awards.

Two awards honor sites of discovery. Beginning in 1992, HIST and ACS created a program to honor scientific and technical heritage with a series of plaques designating a site, artifact, or collection as a National Historic Chemical Landmark. Originally conceived as a public outreach effort to bring the achievements of the chemical community to the general public, the program has now designated 57 landmarks in the U.S., England, Mexico, Canada, France, and India.

Just last year, HIST started an award program called Citations for Chemical Breakthroughs (see page 35). To recognize publications and patents worldwide in the field of chemistry in which revolutionary concepts with broad scope and long-term impact were first expressed, a plaque is placed near the office or laboratory where the breakthrough was made.

The two other awards HIST administers are for individual achievements. Sidney M. Edelstein, secretary of HIST during the 1950s and 1960s, initiated the Dexter Chemical Award in the History of Chemistry in 1956. The award, given for outstanding contributions to scholarship in the history of chemistry, was renamed the Sidney Edelstein Award for Outstanding Achievement in the History of Chemistry after its sponsorship changed in 2002.

HIST continues to sponsor its Outstanding Paper Award. Originally given for the best oral presentation at a HIST meeting, it has been given annually since 1989 to the best paper published in the Bulletin for the History of Chemistry for the previous three-year period.

These awards and activities encourage people to "start thinking about history as part of their own lives," said Jeffrey I. Seeman, immediate past-chair of HIST. He explained that the division aims, in short, "to advance knowledge and appreciation of the history of the chemical sciences among chemists, students, historians of science, and the broader public."

Although books and scholarly journals are the primary ways to communicate the history of chemistry, history has a place in a newsmagazine too, said Rudy Baum, editor-in-chief of C&EN, which is published by ACS. Providing readers with historical perspective is not specifically in C&EN's mission, he said, yet "history is important to our coverage because it provides context for the news we report."

Twenty-five years ago, HIST helped create a center of scholarship that also provides context and is dedicated to the history of the chemical sciences. Located in Philadelphia, the center is known as the Chemical Heritage Foundation. Arnold Thackray, CHF's director, reminded symposium attendees at the ACS meeting about the importance of supplying good information about the "greats" to teachers of all levels of chemistry.

Digital library projects also increase access to that kind of information and are useful for research projects in the history of chemistry, said Carmen J. Giunta, a chemistry professor at Le Moyne College, in Syracuse, N.Y. He added that the history of chemistry not only can inform but can inspire current and future chemists. "We will have new stories to tell as the present becomes the past."

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