Elizabeth Fulhame discovers catalysis and plants the seeds of photography

Everyone knows Swedish chemist Jöns Jakob Berzelius discovered chemical catalysis in 1835, right? He described it as “the property of exerting on other bodies an action which is very different from chemical affinity. By means of this action, they produce decomposition in bodies, and form new compounds into the composition of which they do not enter.” I mean, it’s why he’s considered one of the founding fathers of the discipline. Actually, while Berzelius might have coined the term “catalysis,” he was not the first person to publish on the process. Scottish chemist Elizabeth Fulhame beat him to the punch — by more than 40 years.

Little is known about Elizabeth’s life before adulthood. She and her Irish husband, Dr. Thomas Fulhame, lived in Edinburgh. He studied at the University of Edinburgh and specialized in the treatment and prevention of deadly postpartum infections. It was likely that through him she had contact with many great minds of science. Thomas was taking a chemistry class at the University at the time, so Elizabeth may have borrowed his textbooks.

In 1780, Elizabeth says she found herself with an abundance of leisure time, and decided she wanted to see if she could infuse cloth with gold, silver, and other metals, by chemical processes. She began dipping silk threads into nitrate of gold or other metal salts, then exposing it to light. When she mentioned the project to her husband and friends, they scoffed that it was “improbable” she would ever succeed. Far from discouraging her, these naysayers gave Elizabeth a renewed sense of determination. She continued her research, and reported that “after some time, I had the satisfaction of realizing the idea, in some degree, by experiment.”

“Though I was, after some considerable time, able to make small bits of cloth of gold and silver, I did not think them worthy of public attention; but by persevering, I at length succeeded in making pieces of gold cloth, as large as my finances would admit,” Elizabeth wrote.

Her photochemical imaging captured on cloth was the first of its kind. Excited by the potential applications of such technology, she suggested maps might benefit from being created using the method: “I found the invention was applicable to painting, and would also contribute to facilitate the study of geography; for I have applied it to some maps, the rivers of which I represented in silver, and the cities in gold. The rivers appearing as it were in silver streams, have a most pleasing effect on the sight, and relieve the eye of that painful search for the course and origin of rivers.”

While she may sound like a bored housewife tinkering around with amateur science or a part-time alchemist looking to make a quick buck, she was in fact a well-versed scholar of contemporary scientific theory — as well-versed as a woman could hope to be anyway.

In 1793, Elizabeth met chemist and natural philosopher Joseph Priestley in London. She showed him her dyed cloths and regaled him with her observations. “I was greatly struck by them,” Priestley wrote. He encouraged Elizabeth to publish her findings. Priestly is remembered as the inventor of carbonated water and may have been the first to discover oxygen. (He was also hounded out of England the following year for his inflammatory political opinions, finding solace on the banks of the Susquehanna in Pennsylvania.)

In November 1794, Fulhame published a book painstakingly describing her nearly 15 years of chemical experimentation in excruciating detail: An Essay on Combustion, with a view to a New Art of Dying and Painting wherein the Phlogistic and Antiphlogistic Hypotheses are Proved Erroneous. In her book’s introduction, she summarizes the prevailing theories of at least six notable chemists. She then goes on to lay out the points where she disagrees with their assertions.

Elizabeth’s main point was to show that the hydrogen of water was the only substance that restored oxygenated bodies to their combustible state; and that water was the only source of oxygen that oxygenates combustible bodies. Priestley and others demanded that oxygen (dubbed “dephlogisticated air” by Priestly) still contained water. “Their account of the formation of water, acids, and oxids, is erroneous; for it has been shown that the oxygen of water alone oxygenates combustible bodies.”

One of the most important contributions was her discovery that combustible bodies, such as hydrogen, phosphorus, sulphur, and charcoal, are capable of reducing metals at room temperature. Until then, such reductions were only attempted at very high temperatures, such as in a furnace. Elizabeth was also one of the first to describe the dynamic nature of oxidation and reduction when she observed that several of the reduced metals disappeared on exposure to air.

“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. Persuaded that we are not to be deterred from the investigation of truth by any authority however great, and that every opinion must stand or fall by its own merits, I venture with diffidence to offer mine to the world,” she concluded. “This view of combustion may serve to show how nature is always the same, and maintains her equilibrium by preserving the same quantities of air and water on the surface of the globe; for as fast as these are consumed in the various processes of combustion, equal quantities are formed, and rise regenerated like the Phenix from her ashes.”

Her book did not go unnoticed. Male scientists didn’t take kindly to her poking holes in the ideas that their highly educated minds had conjured. Priestley fumed: “…her theory is fanciful, and fabulous, as the story of the phenix itself.”

Elizabeth’s introduction to her essay proves she was fully prepared for such a response: “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; and should the spectre appear in the shape of a woman, the pangs which they suffer are truly dismal. … others … assume a dictatorship in science, and fancying their rights and perogatives invaded, swell with rage and are suddenly seized with a violent and irresistible desire of revenge… 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.”

It wasn’t all critical, though. The crotchety Count Rumford, aka Sir Benjamin Thompson, called her “ingenious and lively.” Her work soon became widely discussed. A 1798 chapter-by-chapter review of her book in the esteemed medical journal Annales de Chimie ran 28 pages long. This was one of several reviews in French journals. A German translation also appeared in 1798.

When an American edition of the book was published in 1810, Elizabeth was appointed a corresponding member of the Chemical Society of Philadelphia. “Mrs. Fulhame has now laid such bold claims to chemistry that we can no longer deny the sex the privilege of participating in this science also,” the Society declared.

An advertisement by the unknown editor of the American version rebukes the establishment for their sexist inclinations, which interfere with the advancement of science: “The interesting contents of the subsequent pages, by the very ingenious Mrs. Fulhame, are assuredly deserving of more attention, than they have hitherto received … 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.”

Though admittedly tedious, the detailed descriptions of experiments contained in her book have allowed scientists to recreate them regularly over the years. Modern replication results continue to approximate those reported by Elizabeth. While researchers have called some of her approaches “flawed,” they agree her overall mechanistic insight was “ahead of its time.” And while she didn’t discover photography per se, her research does lay the groundwork for photography’s chemical process a solid 50 years before Daguerre bursts onto the scene.

Elizabeth shows us what determined, curious women of leisure can accomplish when they put their minds to it. She was a brave, early defender of women’s right to participate in the sciences.

Further Reading:

The Woman Behind Photography,” Sotheby’s Institute of Art.

Elizabeth Fulhame, a forgotten chemistry pioneer,” by Claire Jarvis, Physics Today, June 17, 2020.

More about me:

Pre-order my book: Women in White Coats: How the First Women Doctors Changed the World of Medicine, out March 2, 2021 from HarperCollins/Park Row Books.

Journalist & author on women, science, history, arts. Bylines: The Cut, Aeon, Smithsonian, Guardian, SciAm, WaPo. WOMEN IN WHITE COATS 2021 from HarperCollins.

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