A Catalyst for Change

Olivia Campbell
7 min readFeb 9, 2021

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…

Olivia Campbell

New York Times bestselling author of WOMEN IN WHITE COATS. Bylines: The Atlantic, The Cut, Aeon, Smithsonian, Guardian. https://oliviacampbell.substack.com