Dr Catherine M Jackson

Featured Publication
cmj 2017 fischer first page

Emil Fischer and the “Art of Chemical Experimentation”, (History of Science 55, 2017, 86-120) 


What did nineteenth-century chemists know? This essay uses Emil Fischer’s classic study of the sugars in 1880s and 90s Germany to argue that chemists’ knowledge was not primarily vested in the theories of valence, structure, and stereochemistry that have been the subject of so much historical and philosophical analysis of chemistry in this period. Nor can chemistry be reduced to a merely manipulative exercise requiring little or no intellectual input. Examining what chemists themselves termed the “art of chemical experimentation” reveals chemical practice as inseparable from its cognitive component, and it explains how chemists integrated theory with experiment through reason. 

  • History of modern chemistry
  •  History of modern sciences
  • History of scientific glassblowing
  • Scientific pedagogy and collective practice
  • Laboratory history and lab studies
  • Material culture studies

As chemist and historian, my interest is in science as a learned, material, collective practice.  At present, I’m focused on completing my first book – a history of the origins and development of synthetic organic chemistry in nineteenth-century Germany.  My study, called Material World: Making Modern Chemistry, explains the rise of this powerful and productive science.  Built on a fundamental revision in our understanding of the accomplishments of one of history’s most famous chemists, Justus Liebig, my study explains why chemists began doing organic synthesis, and what it allowed them to do.  It’s a story of personal ambition and heated dispute, of broken dreams and broken glass, of high theory and low cunning, of indecipherable notebooks and imperial ambition.  By 1900, organic synthesis had launched mighty industries, transformed molecular understanding of organic nature, and laid the foundations for the molecular life sciences.  My book provides the first historical explanation of these remarkable achievements.  In doing so it contributes to our understanding of the rise of technical modernity.

Research for Material World highlighted the importance of glass and glassblowing to the science of chemistry, and it led to a collaborative project (founded with master scientific glassblower Tracy Drier, UW-Madison, Chemistry: https://www.chem.wisc.edu/users/drier) that examines the essential role of flame worked glassware in mediating chemists’ interactions with the molecular microworld.  The spaces inside glass bring skill, fire, and substance together to make new worlds.  Their shape and content are subject to minute control, they’re impervious to corrosive chemicals, yet they’re so fragile almost none remains from the past.  Generations of chemists fought over the meaning of these spaces, saw things inside that we cannot, and taught us to share their vision with coloured ball-and-stick models.  That’s why I’ve called this project Microheterotopias.

  • Glassware

  • Emil Fischer and the "art of chemical experimentation".

  • Liebig’s Kaliapparat and the Origins of Scientific Glassblowing

  • Who was William Hyde Wollaston?

  • The Laboratory

  • More

I’d be pleased to hear from potential Masters or DPhil students interested in researching in any of my areas of active research (listed above).


I currently teach:


  • Methods and Themes in the History of Medicine
  • Ideas meet Things: Why materiality matters in the history of science


Part II, MChem: History of Science (http://teaching.chem.ox.ac.uk/department-of-history.aspx ) NB This website should be updated shortly.

In the Media

Part of an ongoing collaboration with master scientific glassblower Tracy Drier (University of Wisconsin-Madison, Chemistry Department: https://www.chem.wisc.edu/users/drier) this public lecture broadcast by Wisconsin Public Television in 2018 examined the essential role of flame worked glassware in mediating chemists’ interactions with the molecular microworld: https://www.pbs.org/video/glass-and-glassblowing-in-making-modern-chemistry-nrjilg/