Organized Session

Extraction, Reaction, Production: Telling the Histories of Chemistry through Labor


Forum for the History of the Chemical Sciences


Alison McManus

Princeton University


Projit Mukharji

University of Pennsylvania


Session Abstract

Chemistry and economics share a vocabulary of transformation and separation. Yield, production, extraction, and reaction are just a few terms that apply to both the study of matter and the production of value, broadly construed. Though not analytically significant on its own, this terminological overlap may guide research in at least two ways. First, it instructs us to take labor as a serious element of the chemical sciences. Indeed, historians have shown how laboratory practice, material properties, and economic constraints conditioned the development and reception of alchemy and chemistry. Such practices can be invisible, concealed, devalued, and nevertheless operative. This as much the case for domestic drudgery, which shaped chemical ideas and practices in early modern Europe and North America (Simon Werrett), as it is for the extensive laboratory and manual work that positioned DDT as a heroic anti-malarial in the 20th century (Alison McManus). Second, we may take the history of chemistry as a key consideration in labor history. Thinking with labor reminds us that pressing present-day questions about chemical science and technology in the Anthropocene, such as the regulation of the chemical industry, the globalization of markets, and the ubiquity of toxic exposures, also exemplify long-term historical patterns and processes, as Megan Piorko demonstrates in her study of the Royal College of Physicians' regulation of chemical labor. This session's contributors gesture toward two interlinked questions: What can the history of chemistry offer labor history, and what can labor history offer the history of chemistry?

Presenter 1

Illicit Chemical Medicine in Early Modern England: The Trials of the Royal College of Physicians

Megan Piorko

Science History Institute


Laws and policies have attempted to regulate the acquisition, manufacture, and application of chemicals in Europe since the 16th century, when Paracelsus identified them as viable treatments for disease. This paper uses the Annals of the Royal College of Physicians to examine the enforcement of these regulations on medical practitioners that used chemical remedies in the 16th and 17th centuries. Since it was first established in London in 1518, the College tried thousands of medical practitioners on the grounds of illicit practice. The most commonly cited reason that the Royal College of Physicians accused people was lack of proper authority to practice medicine, although where one was supposed to derive this authority was ambiguous. Two specific accounts in the Annals illustrate the reach and control that the Royal College of Physicians had over English chemical medicine during this time. The first is a lengthy correspondence between the College, Cambridge, and Oxford, in which the College accused both esteemed universities of awarding medical degrees to charlatans. The second follows the College's ten-year legal battle with physician and alchemist Arthur Dee, giving a more personal view into the trials of medical practitioners. Both of these examples address broader issues related to chemical labor such as, "Who controlled access to medical knowledge in early modern Europe?" and, "How did individual medical practitioners assert their authority to practice chemical treatments?"


Presenter 2

The Chymistry of Drudgery

Simon Werrett

University College London


Historians of science have long considered connections between early modern science and labor in, for example, the ample literature on artisans and enlightenment. Focusing on early modern England and North America, this paper asks how the sciences, in this case chymistry, connected to a more domestic and family-oriented form of labor - the hard work of keeping a home. What sorts of work were associated with households, and how did householders talk about this work? "Drudgery" or "Druggery" was one term for their efforts, referring to the laborious work demanded by family members and their servants to maintain the home. What kinds of practice did drudgery entail? Who did the work, and how was it chymical? Did drudgery shape chymical ideas or techniques? Chymistry was always close to labor, in the laboratory, the "chymist's workshop" and the laborant, the "workman of a chymist." We know that chymists like Robert Boyle employed servants to carry out experiments, but can we say more about the nature of the effort involved in these laborious contexts? The paper considers the moral and environmental economies of issues such as toil, inconvenience, tedium, irksomeness, pain, sweat and hard labor in early modern chymical and domestic labors.


Presenter 3

Constructing a Magic Bullet: DDT and its Auxiliaries in the Sardinian Anti-Malaria Campaign, 1946-1950

Alison McManus

Princeton University


In the wake of the Second World War, the Rockefeller Foundation embarked on a political, chemical, and epidemiological "experiment": the elimination of malaria in Sardinia. The campaign's unqualified success at halting disease transmission furthered the reputation of DDT as a "magic bullet" and granted a victory to American interventionism, even as evidence of insecticide resistance mounted. Yet the Foundation relied upon more than just DDT to combat entomological, geographic, and political resistance. Borrowing a term from Frank Snowden, this paper examines the "unacknowledged anti-malarials" of the Sardinian Campaign, moving from the laboratories of the Italian Istituto Superiore di Sanità to the marshy lowlands and rocky highlands of Sardinia. It shows how Dr. Maria Alessandrini's novel residual tests enabled officers to recognize insecticide resistance, and auxiliary chemical insecticides such as heptachlor and octachlor rescued DDT from the scent of failure. Over twenty thousand Sardinian workers drained marshes, cleared bramble, and sprayed the island's estimated one million mosquito breeding sites, bolstering the reputation of DDT despite protesting the Foundation's seasonal layoffs. The "singular" hero DDT was, in fact, an assemblage of chemical technologies and labor practices, which held certain assumptions about the nature of laboratory, industrial, and field work, namely that they could be subject to infinite innovations and reworkings. The messiness of chemical work challenges the simplicity of chemical solutions.



Lissa Roberts

University of Twente; Editor-in-Chief, History of Science