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C&EN talks with Peter J. T. Morris, science historian

The design of today’s chemical laboratories still owes much to the developments of 19th-century chemists

by Chris Gorski
September 29, 2023 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 101, Issue 32
A black-and-white drawing of four people in a workshop containing several furnaces and other apparatuses.

Credit: Wellcome Library, London | Before the 1800s, laboratories and workshops included furnaces, such as in this assaying workspace from Lazarus Ercker's 1574 book Beschreibung allerfürnemisten mineralischen Ertzt und Berckwercksarten (Description of leading ore processing and mining methods).



Credit: Courtesy of Peter J. T. Morris
Peter J. T. Morris


▸ Education: BA, chemistry, 1978, and PhD, modern history, 1983, University of Oxford

▸ Hometown: On the London-Essex border

▸ Favorite lab instrument: Berthelot’s gas spigot

▸ Historical lab you would have liked to visit: The old laboratory at Heidelberg, which was a former Dominican friary

▸ Hobbies: Astronomy and learning ancient Greek

The laboratories in which today’s students first gain experience with chemistry tend to look quite similar. There’s a table or bench, there’s some glassware, and there’s access to gas and water. Most of these features have served generations of budding chemists. High-level research and professional labs might add a few fancy instruments but share many of the same features. How did these familiar elements found in most every chemistry laboratory become so ubiquitous?

The history and evolution that led to the modern laboratory is one subject of Peter J. T. Morris’s research. A former curator at London’s Science Museum, he traces some of his findings in his 2015 book The Matter Factory and an article in ChemTexts (2021, DOI: 10.1007/s40828-021-00146-x). These works are an effort to trace how the modern chemistry laboratory developed, he says. “I’d never really seen a book that really explains just where the place you work in came about.”

C&EN’s Chris Gorski spoke with Morris about how the chemistry laboratory evolved out of furnace-dominated alchemical workshops before settling into a blueprint that spread a consistent design across the globe. They also discussed how health and safety considerations started to change that historical design toward the end of the 20th century and how Morris thinks laboratory design may change in the coming decades. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How would you describe the birth and development of chemical laboratories?

The key step was the disappearance of the furnace. They still existed in labs at the end of the 18th century and even later. Essentially, there was a transition from furnace-dominated workshops—I don’t like to add alchemical, as it gives a misleading impression—to what I call the classical laboratory, which arose in the 19th century. This is the one with washstands at the end and then benches and bottle racks and stuff like that—the one that most of us who are old enough started with years ago.

Man stands at a wooden laboratory bench, examining a test tube at eye level. Around the lab are racks, glassware, and numerous other pieces of equipment.
Credit: Science History Institute
Theodor Curtius, shown here in Kiel, Germany, in 1897, studied with Robert Bunsen at Heidelberg University and later became a professor of chemistry there.
Colorized historical image shows numerous people working at lab benches.
Credit: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo
Justus von Liebig's laboratory in Giessen, Germany, shown here circa 1840, was important to the development of the design of today's laboratories.

When do we see the first laboratories that a modern person might recognize as a laboratory?

I use the term classical laboratory in a very, very specific sense, which is the laboratory that developed in roughly the mid-19th century. It had its origins in the Liebig laboratory [in Giessen, Germany] and then in the Heidelberg laboratory [of Robert Bunsen in Germany] and reached its glory in Berlin and Leipzig in the 1860s. The classical laboratory remained the [primary design of the] laboratory from roughly 1860 to 1995.

You describe in your book how some professors in the 19th century used to live in the same building as the laboratory, perhaps with an assistant. How widespread was that practice?

In Germany they had this idea that the director of the laboratory, as it was called, had to live in the laboratory. Not least in case a fire broke out—to direct the firefighting operations. It was this very Germanic idea that they actually had to live there. It never happened in the British or the American world. But of course somebody like [August Wilhelm von] Hofmann made it their house. There was a private suite and even a ballroom in the Berlin chemical laboratory.

Talking about all this, it also brings out a key problem in writing about the history of the laboratory, which is purely linguistic. Because what do we mean by a laboratory? Obviously, first and foremost, we mean the place in which chemistry is carried out. We also talk about the laboratory as being the whole building. If you’re talking about the professor living in the laboratory, that’s true in the sense that he’s living in the building. But he’s not literally living in the laboratory. Well, maybe he does if he’s enough of a workaholic, but that’s not quite my point.

So what are the main features that came in the 19th century that separate those labs from their predecessors? Were running water and gas lines the most important?

Heidelberg is very important in this respect because in Heidelberg you have both tap water and running gas. [Another important change was quite late on:] the actual disposal of chemical waste by the drains. One of the last developments in the whole development of the laboratory was the drains. I suspect plumbed-in drains were common by the 1870s. It is mostly a matter of towns introducing sewers rather than labs thinking of better ways of getting rid of wastewater.

Hoods and ventilation must have started to come in as well?

Black-and-white photo shows two researchers working in a laboratory, with a sink in the foreground. There are numerous bottles on shelves on the wall and equipment on the table.
Credit: Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo/Alamy Stock Photo
Researchers in the Berlin University chemistry laboratory in 1902. The addition of running water was an important part of developing the classical laboratory.

Well, hoods were quite early, as you call them. But in England we call them fume cupboards.

A metal spigot has a bracket on the bottom, with tubing leading to a spherical feature with embossed decorations. Several valved fittings emerge from the sphere's equator, and a vertical pipe emerges from the top.
Credit: Science Museum, London
Berthelot's spigot—Peter J. T. Morris's favorite instrument—is about 38 cm tall. It has five gas spouts, and a base allows it to be mounted to a bench.

They start in about the 1840s. As these things go, that was quite early. The trouble with the early hoods was they worked on a burning candle. You had a burning candle at the end of a cupboard, which drew the air in because there were no machines. Not only was the draft very weak, but in the early days fume cupboards were usually on outside walls and just vented to the outside air. So fume cupboards were quite early, but they were quite hopeless.

The history of chemical laboratories, in a very important respect, is the history of health and safety. I mean this happened in my own lifetime. I do have rather shaky hands, I’m afraid. I discovered when I was working as an undergraduate in the laboratory that I was getting chemicals on my hands. I bought myself a pair of household rubber gloves and started wearing them in the laboratory, and I was told to take them off.

They said, “You can’t work properly wearing rubber gloves.” And I said, “Well, I don’t feel safe not wearing them.” So it was a bit of a standoff, and they didn’t pursue it. So it was very different from today, and that was only the 1970s. Even the wearing of [protective or safety] glasses was not standard.

There’s been more recently a shift toward the more sort of office-like laboratory, where you just have plastic benches. And the important thing about them is for the experimental work to be completely separated from the rest of life. Whereas in the old days you would do all your writing up and your drinking of coffee and perhaps even eat your lunch in the laboratory. All that would now be completely banned on health and safety grounds.

Image shows numerous small vials, some with blue caps, some with no caps, all lined up in rows. Around them are machines, wires and instruments.
Credit: IBM
Human chemists may be largely replaced in the laboratory by robots within decades, says Peter J. T. Morris, a historian of chemistry.

How will safety influence where laboratories go from here?

If you are going to focus on health and safety, you want to remove the most dangerous thing from the laboratory. And the most dangerous thing in the laboratory is the human being. It’s also the most vulnerable. [They are] probably not doing a very good job anyway. I’m sure in another 30–40 years all chemistry will be done robotically. You could just do it from home. “Do this; do that; heat this; pour this into this.” It’s not difficult to do. In terms of automation, it’s not very difficult. The main problem is, well, people like to do chemistry.


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