The oldest chemsoc in the world

In 1935, John Kendall, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Edinburgh, wrote to the Journal of Chemical Education with what one can imagine was more than a hint of glee. He reported that there was a list of names, written in Joseph Black’s hand, under the heading “List of the Members of the Chemical Society“. These names had previously been thought to have been people from the city of Edinburgh with an interest in chemistry, or indeed those drawn from the general population of the country.

List of names from Kendall,  J Chem Ed
List of names from Kendall, J Chem Ed, 1935, 12, 565.

Kendall had the simple but ingenious idea of checking the register of students of the University of Edinburgh from this period, and in a productive 15 minutes, he identified 53 of the 59 names immediately. He wrote that “the right names tumbled out of the register just like ripe apples from a tree when shaken“.  The remaining names could be accounted for by transcription errors. Thus the list of names written in Joseph Black’s hand were considered to be members of Black’s class, and therefore it can be considered as the original Chemical Society of the University of Edinburgh. Prior to this, the oldest society was considered to be the Chemical Society of Philadelphia (1792). The nationality of 19 on the list is given (those who were medical graduates). Three were Scottish, three were English, and the remaining 13 were Irish; step forward Bicker McDonald

How do we know this group functioned as a society? Kendall gives an update on the story in 1953, in his book “Great Discoveries by Young Chemists“. He received a letter from Rev PJ McLaughlin in 1947. The good Reverend had discovered a folio that had been given to the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, in 1846. This contained a collection of “Dissertations read before the Chemical Society instituted in the beginning of the Year 1785”. Edinburgh is mentioned within, and the names of the 32 contributors match some of those on Black’s list. Kendall requested that the volume be loaned to the Royal Society of Edinburgh, where upon examination, he realised it was the first book of Proceedings of the Chemical Society of the University of Edinburgh. Published in 1785, it has the honour of being the world’s first chemistry journal, preceding Annales de Chimie by 5 years.

Kendall requested that the book of proceedings to be returned to Edinburgh, and on 25 November, 1947, the Council of the Royal Irish Academy agreed to return the folio to its original home. Kendall concludes with a paragraph that makes me think that we would have got on quite well:

And now, my readers, if you possess friends with a common interest in chemistry, don’t you think it would be well worth while to start a chemical society of your own for the discussion of topics of current importance ? You might even keep a record of the papers presented by members at the meetings of such a society, and this record might help chemical historians of the year 2100 to appreciate the scientific problems of today.

Inquiry learning of chemistry in 19th century girls schools

Consider the following scenario:

Young children are delighted to be so regarded, to be told that they are to act as a band of young detectives. For example, in studying the rusting of iron, they at once fall in with the idea that a crime, as it were, is committed when the valuable strong iron is changed into useless, brittle rust; with the greatest interest they set about finding out whether it is a case of murder or suicide, as it were−whether something outside the iron is concerned in the change or whether it changes of its own accord

The British chemist Henry Edward Armstrong pioneered the use of what is now called guided inquiry in the late nineteenth century. His story is recounted in articles by Rayner-Canham & Rayner-Canham (2011, 2014). Armstrong was a chemistry lecturer a St Barts and was frustrated at the emphasis of examinations on memorization and definitions. Over the decade from 1870, he developed the means for students to explore chemical concepts in the laboratory. Armstrong wrote of his approach:

For the ideal school of the future I picture the teacher no longer giving lessons but quietly moving about among the pupils, all earnestly at work and deeply interested, aiding each to accomplish the allotted task, as far as possible alone

His approach was called the heuristic approach, and it was structured such that it was carefully guided (In contrast with what we might call discovery learning today). While Armstrong himself was antagonistic against women in science, he promoted his method with girl’s schools science teachers from private schools. (Science in most girls schools didn’t feature until the 1950s.) One such teacher, Grace Heath from North London Collegiate for Girls, wrote to Nature in 1892:

…pupils themselves are put into the position of discoverers, they know why they are at work, what it is they want to discover, and as one experiment after another adds a new link to the chain of evidence which is solving their problem

This school had a laboratory with room for 24 girls at a time. Elsewhere St Swithun’s chemistry laboratory was built after girls left a flask of chlorine open deliberately during a tour by the administrative council in an aim to highlight the lack of facilities. We can learn lots from the past…

As the twentieth century progressed, a debate about the role of science education for girls and opposition from Sir William Ramsey and others to the heuristic method led to the rise of the lecture with demonstration method.

Extract from Henry Edward Armstrong's book
Extract from Henry Edward Armstrong’s book: The teaching of scientific method (1903)
  • Geoff Rayner-Canham and Marelene Rayner-Canham, The Heuristic Method, Precursor of Guided Inquiry: Henry Armstrong and British Girls’ Schools, 1890−1920J. Chem. Educ., 2015, 92, 463−466.
  • Marelene Rayner-Canham and Geoffrey Rayner-Canham, Chemistry in English academic girls’ schools, 1880-1930Bull. Hist. Chem., 2011, 36(2), 68-74.
  • Armstong’s book is available on the Internet Archive:

William Cullen and the early teaching of chemistry #oldtimechem

They don’t make student satisfaction quotes like they used to in the old days:

Dr Cullen was always at pains to examine his students from time to time on those parts of his course that had already been delivered; and wherever he found any one at a loss, he explained it anew, in a clear, familiar manner, suited to the capacity of the student.”

William Cullen
William Cullen

This quote was from a former student of William Cullen, who took up the Chemical Lectureship at Glasgow in 1747. He held the first independent chemistry lectureship in Britain and Ireland, with chemistry previously being what we today consider a service course to medicine. Funding for the post came by delaying the appointment of a Professor of Oriental Languages. Cullen was provided with money to set up his laboratory, and spent £52 “building furnaces and fitting up a laboratory and furnishing the necessary vessels for it”. The vessels were identified in a letter from Cullen’s brother-in-law who was trying to source a suitable glass-blower: a tabulated retort, a double-necked receiver; a quilled receiver, a funnel, and a connecting tube. Books requested by Cullen at the same time included Johann Heinrich Pott’s Excertitationes Chymicae, published in Berlin in 1738.

What did Cullen teach? A syllabus from 1748 survives, and shows that this was an exciting time for chemistry. Lavoisier was only 4 years old when Cullen took up his Lectureship, and the subject was still in its infancy. Cullen wished to expand it from the narrow confines of application to medicine, instead highlighting its application to a variety of areas of importance.  He wrote in one lecture: “it has been taught with very narrow view”.  Alluding to the agricultural and industrial relevance of chemistry, he continued:

It is the chemist who from these stones and earths procures malleable metals. It is the chemist who gives to these metals the degree of hardness, ductility, elasticity, or other property that fits the several purposes.

The syllabus contained an introduction to the history and use of chemistry, followed by a consideration of the doctrines of the primary causes of chemical reactions (“changes in bodies occurring in chemical operations”) and discussion on solution, distillation and fusion.  Particular emphasis was then given to three major subdivisions: salts (considering acid and alkalis), sulphurs (considering natural products), and waters (with mineral waters).

There was a strong emphasis on practical chemistry. Lectures often opened with a demonstration. Alarmingly, one included the preparation of nitric acid, and the regenerating of potassium nitrate, to illustrate the nature of ‘mixts’. Unusually, and probably uniquely, he encouraged inquiry by students, introducing voluntary practical classes. But Cullen learned a lesson then that chemistry lecturers have been learning ever since: if you don’t assess it, they don’t do it. He lamented in his final lecture to students that:

I proposed that during the course you should have acquired some knowledge [of experimental manipulation] in this way. The laboratory has been open to you, but I am sorry to find that so few of you have frequented it.

After a time at Glasgow, Cullen moved to Edinburgh, starting a course there on 12 January 1756.  Initially he was meant to take the Chair held by Plummer, but Plummer decided to hold on a little longer, and it wasn’t until illness struck him in 1755, that the way was paved for Cullen to become Chair of Medicine and Chemistry. His appointment was controversial: other names had been suggested for Plummer’s replacement, including joseph Black, who was Cullen’s stellar assistant at Glasgow.  But the Town Council, who had over-riding power of the University in accordance with the Charter of James VI, gave Cullen the nod. At Edinburgh, he continued expanding the breadth of the subject he taught. Indeed, his work on fermentation gives credit to the claim that he was one of the pioneers of biochemistry. As the opening quote illustrates, he was a popular teacher at Edinburgh, with student numbers in his classes growing from 17 in his first year, to 59 in the second. Up to 145 students attended his sessions.

Cullen was eventually replaced by Joseph Black, who had acted as his assistant for a course in Glasgow, and had moved to Edinburgh to complete his medical studies in 1752. After Cullen’s appointment to the Chair, Black went to Glasgow as a lecturer in chemistry, and returned to Edinburgh in 1766, replacing Cullen as Professor of Chemistry. Cullen himself was promoted to the Chair of Institutes of Medicine at Edinburgh. His two decades of teaching chemistry at Glasgow and Edinburgh were characterised by an interest in conveying the breadth of the subject and its variety of applications. He had the hallmarks of what we would today consider a reflective practitioner. In 1760 he wrote:

It will only be when the languor and debility of age shall restrain me that I shall cease to make some corrections of my plan or some additions to my course.

Published for the #oldtimechem theme running for the 2015 #Realtimechem week


  1. G. W. Anderson (1978) The Playfair Collection and the Teaching of Chemistry at the University of Edinburgh 1713 – 1858, The Royal Scottish Museum: Edinburgh.
  2. P.D. Wightman (1955) William Cullen and the teaching of chemistry, Annals of Science, 11(2), 154-165.
  3. P.D. Wightman (1956) William Cullen and the teaching of chemistry—II, Annals of Science, 12:3, 192-205

Web sources:

Glasgow Chemistry:

Edinburgh Chemistry:

The Cullen Project:

500 Years of Science Infographic

This is a great way of representing the contributions to science over the course of 500 years. The chemistry line (tan coloured) begins with origins in alchemy and starts as chemistry proper with Robert Boyle, followed by Black, Cavendish, Lavoisier and Priestley. The station intersections show where one scientist had an impact on two or more disciplines – needless to say Newton is a central hub!

Click on the image to access a version of the map which allows each scientist’s name to be followed through to their Wikipedia entry.

To ensure you always have the latest version of the map, click on the link to the original author’s blog entry.

Chemistry: A Volatile History

Congratulations to all concerned in the production of the recent BBC series “Chemistry: A Volatile History”.  This series reminds me of Bill Bryson’s book, “A Short History of Nearly Everything“, in the way that the lives of the scientists involved in the chemical discoveries are discussed to give a rich context for their discoveries and innovation. I plan to return to this subject but for the moment I have linked below the three episodes, which are available on YouTube to all of us non-UK based-non-BBC-iPlayer people.

Episode 1: Discovering the Elements

Episode 2: The Order of the Elements

Episode 3: The Power of the Elements

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