Celebration Edition #421:
"An essay on combustion, with a view to a new art of dying and painting : wherein the phlogistic and antiphlogistic hypotheses are proved erroneous."
By Mrs. Elizabeth Fulhame.
Philadelphia: Printed and sold by James Humphreys, Corner of Second and Walnut-streets, 1810.
The first edition of Fulhame's "Essay on combustion" was published in London in 1794. Her book was translated and published in German in 1798, and a second English edition was published in Philadelphia in 1810.
Infuriatingly, we know almost nothing about Elizabeth Fulhame. What little we do know we either read or deduce from her book. She was married, possibly to Dr. Thomas Fulhame, who taught at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. Her husband shared at least some interest in science, since it was "Doctor Fulhame and some friends" to whom she turned when she had "the idea of making cloths of gold, silver, and other metals by chymical processes." She was determined, for when her idea "was deemed improbable", she went ahead anyway. She was organized, for she mapped out an extensive plan of research that lasted over many years. She was painstaking, for she carried out complex variations of experiments, some requiring moments, others hours or months. She was sufficiently well-off to be able to purchase precious metals and silks for use in her work. She was intrepid, for she handled dangerous materials including phosphorus, mercury, and volatile gases and liquids.
We can also conclude, from reading her book, that Elizabeth Fulhame was both well-read and highly intelligent. Although she was not successful in her primary goal of commercializing a process for creating metallic cloth, she drew conclusions from her research that were relevant to one of the great scientific debates of her time: phlogiston theory. Proposed originally by Johann Joachim Becher [Beccher] and Georg Ernst Stahl, this theory of combustion was under debate by scientific leaders such as Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and Joseph Priestley. Although Mrs. Fulhame greatly admired Lavoisier's work, she could not agree with either the Phlogistians or the Antiphlogistians: her experimental results, and her scientific logic, demonstrated that both views were flawed.
"Finding, the experiments could not be explained on any theory hitherto advanced, I was led to form an opinion different from that of M. Lavoisier, and other great names.
"I first imagined, that water promoted these reductions by minutely dividing the particles of the metallic salt, and by condensing the gas, and bringing its hydrogen, and the metallic oxide, within the sphere of attraction; the hydrogen either uniting to the metallic earth and reducing it, as the Phlogistians suppose, or uniting with, and separating the oxygen of the metal, and thus restoring it to the metallic form, as the Antiphlogistians maintain.
"But it is evident from the experiments related, that water does not promote these reductions solely, by minutely dividing the particles of the metallic salt; for were this the case, ether and alcohol should promote the reduction of the metallic salts, which they dissolve, since they divide their particles as minutely as water can."
Her work was sufficiently impressive to result in her honorary membership in the Philadelphia Chemical Society; further, it was stated: "Mrs. Fulham has now laid such bold claims to chemistry that we can no longer deny the sex the privilege of participating in this science also." She and her supporters were quite aware that such a view was not commonly held:
"I cannot doubt the justice of the opinions deduced by Mrs. Fulhame from her numerous and well conducted experiments: and although it may be grating to many, to suppose a female capable of successfully opposing the opinions of some of our fathers in science; yet reflection will serve to satisfy the mind devoted to truth, that she has certainly thrown a stumbling block of no small magnitude, in the way of sentiments we have been taught to consider as sacred."
Fulhame herself notes:
"But censure is perhaps inevitable, for some are so ignorant, that they grow sullen and silent, and are chilled with horror at the sight of any thing that bears the semblance of learning, in whatever shape it may appear; and should the spectre appear in the shape of woman, the pangs which they suffer are truly dismal.
"But happen what may, I hope I shall never experience such desertion of mind, as not to hold the helm with becoming fortitude against the storm raised by ignorance, petulant arrogance, and privileged dulness."
Let us then celebrate chemist Elizabeth Fulhame. Her theoretical work on catalysis was a major step in the history of chemistry and her work on silver chemistry is considered a landmark in the early history of photography. Even if you don't read through all her experiments, do read the introduction and preface!
May her work inspire others, as she herself hoped: "Although the surge of deliberate malice be unavoidable, its force is often spent in froth and bubbles; for this little bark of mine has weathered out full many a storm, and stemmed the boisterous tide; and though the cargo be not rich, the dangers which may hereafter be pourtrayed on votive tablet, may serve as a beacon to future mariners."