Brown Bag Lecture: Translating Lavoisier . . . Again: “French Chemistry” and the Making of American Science in the Medical Repository, 1797–1801
Join us for a talk with Thomas Apel, one of our 2016–2017 Haas Fellows.
In the late 1780s Americans eagerly embraced Lavoisier’s new system of chemistry, sometimes called the Chemical Revolution. By the end of the 1790s that enthusiasm had turned to suspicion as Americans anxiously watched the disintegration of the French Revolution. When Samuel Latham Mitchill began to publish The Medical Repository, the first scientific journal published in the United States, he and fellow chemist James Woodhouse used the journal to disassociate Lavoisier’s chemistry from its French contexts and creators. The effort proved more difficult than they thought. For them, translating Lavoisier meant radically changing the language of chemistry and the philosophies that undergirded it, and perhaps abandoning chemistry altogether. The episode reveals the porous barriers between science and politics in the age of “revolutions, philosophical and civil,” and explains the stunted growth of chemistry in the early United States.
Thomas Apel studies the histories of ideas and environments in the Atlantic World during the 18th and 19th centuries. His recently published book, Feverish Bodies, Enlightened Minds: Science and the Yellow Fever Controversy in the Early American Republic (Stanford University Press, 2016), details the efforts of American intellectuals to determine the cause of yellow fever, a disease that was the scourge of American port cities in the 1790s and early 1800s, stimulating one of the most innovative and expansive outpourings of scientific thought in American history. Until recently, Thomas taught history at Menlo College in the San Francisco Bay Area.
“Translating Lavoisier,” Thomas’s project at the Institute, examines the reception of Lavoisier’s chemistry in the early United States. The project shows how the cultural demands of the postcolonial republic influenced the practice and perception of “French” science during an era of revolutionary upheaval and reactionary backlash.