International Year of the Periodic Table

Mendeleyev's periodic table
Mendeleyev’s periodic table

2019 is the International Year of the Periodic Table, [1] celebrating the 150th anniversary of the table’s creation. See a  “briefing” about this anniversary that appears in the Access Science database, accessible through Lehigh’s subscription.[2]

What better way to close out this celebratory year than by pointing out library resources related to the history of chemistry as well as Lehigh’s role in it. Lehigh’s Special Collections has online exhibits that feature the periodic table. One exhibit is 2018’s “At a Glance: Selected Works in the History of Data Visualization”, which included  “Mendeleyev’s Periodic Table” [3]. Another exhibit, “Daring Knowledge: Diderot’s Encyclopedie,” features an illustrated plate from the 18th century encyclopedia depicting early chemical instrumentation and a “table of affinity,” used to organize alchemical compounds. [4]

Diderot's Laboratory and Table of Affinities
Diderot’s Laboratory and Table of Affinities

Lehigh also has an extensive collection of historical books in chemistry. You can view the records of these books in Lehigh’s library catalog by clicking here. [5] If you are interested in seeing any of these materials, please contact Special Collections [6] or fill out a request form if you are at Lehigh. In conjunction with the Science Librarian, [7] Special Collections hosts classes in which students can view and get hands on experience with historical works in the sciences. Lehigh’s library guide “History of Science in Learning and Teaching Science” [8] addresses the values of history in learning or teaching about science.

Lehigh’s own contribution to the history of chemistry is significant. The building we know today as Chandler-Ullmann Hall was originally constructed in 1884 as the Wiliam H. Chandler Chemistry Building and won a medal in design at the 1889 International Exposition in Paris. William Chandler, for whom the laboratory is named, was Lehigh’s first chemistry professor as well as the school’s first University Librarian. William’s brother Charles was also a chemistry professor at Columbia University. Harry M. Ullmann, the namesake of the building’s 1938 addition, served as the chemistry department chair from 1914 to 1938.  According to an American Chemical Society article, [9] subtitled a “A National Historic Chemical Landmark,” the ACS dedicated Chandler Laboratory as a landmark on March 26, 1994. The article notes that “the architectural innovations embodied in the Chandler Laboratory created the model of modern chemical education”. The brothers Chandler edited “The American Chemist”, which the article describes as “a pioneering American journal and a forerunner of the Journal of the American Chemical Society”, commonly known as “JACS”. In this way, Lehigh helped consolidate in America the great advances in chemical knowledge embodied in the periodic table.











Trial and Execution of Antoine Lavoisier, May 8, 1794

Image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Today is the anniversary of French scientist Antoine Lavoisier’s trial and execution by guillotine on May 8, 1794. Lavoisier is famous for his contributions to chemistry. He made many invaluable accomplishments: the naming of oxygen; analysis of the role of this element in combustion and respiration (instead of “phlogiston”); discovery of the conservation of matter in chemical reactions; and quantitative treatment of organic substances. He even worked on solar energy.

Special Collections at Lehigh University has a first edition of his of “Elementary Treatise on Chemistry” ¹, published in 1789, the year used when the French Revolution when described as the “Revolution of 1789”.   In his study of Lavoisier, Jean-Pierre Poirier², describes the book as “the crowning achievement of his undertaking” (192). Included in this wide-ranging work are “essential points of the new chemistry”; “the first modern list of the chemical elements”; and ”instruments and experimental methods of new chemistry”.  The work contains thirteen plates engraved by Madame Lavoisier. Some of these plates are depicted here.(193-195)

As Poirier notes, Lavoisier was only one of several scientists executed in the French Revolution (385-86).  Eventually, the political revolution ate its own; two of its major figures, Danton and Robespierre, were buried in the same area of mass graves as Lavoisier (382). On one account, “During the Reign of Terror, at least 300,000 suspects were arrested; 17,000 were officially executed, and perhaps 10,000 died in prison or without trial.”3

Lavoisier’s greatest contribution was to a different sort of revolution, one of the mind. Poirier quotes I. Bernard Cohen: “the chemical revolution has a primary place among revolutions in science in that it is the first generally recognized major one to have been called a revolution by its chief author” (197).

The Linderman Library exhibit “Daring Knowledge: Diderot’s Encyclopédie“, features more illustrations and information about 18th century chemistry. While the science of the Encyclopédie predates Lavoisier’s mature findings, it provides a snapshot of how chemistry and scientific study were understood in his era.