Mineral Water in the French Enlightenment: A Popular Remedy and Chemical Mystery

Lunchtime Lectures
Tuesday, October 25, 2022
12:00 p.m. EDT (UTC -4)


Bottle of medicinal water, France, 1928.

Bottle of medicinal water, France, 1928.

Science Museum, London

Mineral waters—the kinds that are now available for purchase in most grocery stores—were once considered precious and potent remedies. The change in status from expensive medicine to commercial product can be observed in the context of the French 18th century.

During the Enlightenment, a network of scientific, legislative, and business actors worked to transform natural springs and bring them to a larger segment of the population. By the end of the century, mineral waters were bottled and sold by the thousands across the French kingdom. Chemists and medical professionals, in turn, attempted to explain the nature and effects of the waters. But despite dedicated research performed by dozens of practitioners, the waters remained elusive. However, this mystery did not harm the budding success of mineral waters and would only further public interest in their potential cures for decades to come.

In this talk Armel Cornu opens an unexplored chapter of early modern social and scientific history: a time during which sellers, regulators, patients, physicians, and chemists met, argued, and collaborated over a shared interest in healing waters.

About the Speaker


Armel Cornu headshot

Armel Cornu.

Armel Cornu is a social historian of science specializing in the history of chemistry and medicine in the 18th century. As a Beckman postdoctoral fellow, she is researching the prevalence of sensory knowledge within chemistry, and investigating the mechanisms of its transmission among chemists. This project will bring further light to the formation of chemistry as an independent field, and create connections between two active research areas: the history of early modern chemistry and the sensory studies of the Enlightenment.

Armel’s work has appeared in Circumscribere and L’Actualité chimique. She also worked as an editor on a forthcoming anthology concerning public history. She earned her PhD in 2022 at the University of Uppsala, Sweden. Her doctoral dissertation centered on the market, regulation, and science of mineral water during the French Enlightenment.

About the Series

Our virtual Lunchtime Lecture Series takes a rigorous and entertaining approach to exploring topics for scholars and anyone interested in stories about the history of science, technology, and medicine. The talks help expand perceptions of the nature of science and how it’s done.