News Bureau | University of Illinois

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign logo


2000 | 2001 | 2002 | 2003 | 2004 | 2005 | 2006 | 2007 | 2008
Email to a friend envelope icon for send to a friend

Five hundred years of books that changed the course of chemistry on view

Andrea Lynn, Humanities Editor
(217) 333-2177;


CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Five hundred years of books that changed the course of chemistry -- or made it more interesting -- are now on display at the University of Illinois.

Among the books are a 500-year-old forerunner to the "Physician's Desk Reference" and a 1624 illustrated treatise by an author any child familiar with the popular Harry Potter books would know.

The exhibit, "From Alchemy to Chemistry: 500 Years of Rare and Interesting Books," runs through April 28 in the Rare Book and Special Collections Library, 346 Main Library, 1408 W. Gregory St., Urbana. It is free and open to the public.

Co-curators Tina Chrzastowski, chemistry librarian; Gregory Girolami, professor of inorganic chemistry; and Vera Mainz, spectroscopy lab manager in chemical sciences, culled through hundreds of rare and fascinating books owned by the Rare Book and the Chemistry libraries before choosing their top 36.

The books range from Hieronymus Brunschwig's "Liber de arte distillandi" ["Book of the Art of Distillation"], (1500) -- a precursor to today's PDR -- to Linus Pauling's "The Architecture of Molecules," (1964) -- one of the last "coffee-table chemistry books," Mainz said.

In their exhibit, the curators tried to convey some of the major shifts in the study of chemistry -- not just the movement from alchemy to modern science -- but also the way chemists changed the way they talked about their field.

In other words, one of the themes of the exhibit is how chemists through the ages have used symbols to depict compounds and chemicals -- sometimes as secret codes, as with alchemists, sometimes in standardized nomenclature, as with chemists. According to Mainz, that is one of the differences between alchemists and chemists.

"I think of alchemists as people who like to write about what they've done so that people know they've done it, but they also write in riddles or codes so that other people can't do what they've done," Mainz said. "Chemists, on the other hand, want people to be able to reproduce what they've done. They want people to give them more insight into the work they're doing."

Mainz said that several of the books in the exhibit are extremely rare. For example, only four copies of the Brunschwig first edition book have appeared worldwide at auction in the last 40 years.

Mainz and her husband, Girolami, had been aware of the famous book for many years, but had never seen a copy of it until they saw the UI Rare Book and Special Collection's copy. It is important because it is one of the earliest books on chemistry and pharmacology, and was based on the author's study of some 3,000 authorities.

The book blueprints herbal remedies and contains an abundance of beautiful illustrations of plants and of distillation apparatuses. Mainz notes that the exhibit celebrates the anniversary of the publication of Brunschwig's book, May of 1500.

Other books on exhibit include: -- "TraitŽ ŽlŽmentaire de chimie, prŽsentŽ dans un ordre nouveau et d'aprs les dŽcouvertes modernes" ["Elementary Chemistry Treatise, presented in a new order and after modern discoveries"], 1789, by Antoine Lavoisier, the father of modern chemistry.

According to Mainz, Lavoisier and his colleagues in France standardized the names for chemicals. Before their work, she said, compounds were named for the places they came from, "so that common table salt, for example, might have had dozens of different names. Along came Lavoisier and in one fell swoop basically said, 'This is what we're going to call these things.' That in itself allowed for great progress in the field, because now everyone is on the same page, everyone can talk to each other."

The two volumes are beautifully illustrated by the carefully executed plates of Lavoisier's wife, a highly skilled draftswoman, engraver and painter who studied with the artist Louis David. Unfortunately, Lavoisier was beheaded not long after publication of his book --"showing the danger," Mainz said, "of being a tax collector during a revolutionary regime."

-- "His Exposition of the Hieroglyphical Figures -- His Secret Booke of the Blessed Stone called the Philosopher's," 1624, by Nicolas Flamel. Flamel is the alchemist who appears in the Harry Potter books as the creator of the so-called philosopher's stone [an imaginary substance sought by alchemists in the belief it would change base metals into gold or silver]. Flamel's book, which discusses the making of gold, focuses on alchemy's moral and spiritual dimensions. The illustrations represent the process of making the philosopher's stone, and "also are intended to promote Christian morality and salvation," the exhibit catalog reports.

-- "Conversations on Chemistry," 1809, by Jane Marcet. Marcet's book, which was published anonymously, was a dialogue between two young ladies performing chemistry experiments. Intended as a chemistry primer for "Dames' Schools," the book became a best seller by the 1820s, with some 160,000 copies sold. Another chemist, J.L. Comstock, decided that since sales were so good, he'd keep the title, publish the classic, widely used text under his name, and market it to boys' schools.

The curators purposely brought items of human interest, such as the aforementioned, into the exhibit.

"There's hopefully something interesting about the author as well as a little bit about what the book represents for science," Mainz said, "so, viewers will get a laugh or an insight into some of the people who changed chemistry."

The UI Rare Book and Special Collections Library is open 8:30 a.m.- 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.