The Aberdeen Agricola: Chemical Principles and Practice in James Anderson's Georgics and Geology

  • Matthew D. Eddy
Part of the Archimedes New Studies In The History And Philosophy Of Science and Technology book series (ARIM, volume 18)

Late eighteenth-century industrialists, farmers and physicians who actively employed chemistry are historically hazy figures. This is not only the case for scientific histories, but also for studies that address the socio-economic factors of the Enlightenment. Up until the late twentieth century, historians of chemistry tended to focus on ideas and personalities that nineteenth-century scholars deemed to be important to Antoine Lavoisier’s oxygen theory of combustion – a practice that fell in line with the more ubiquitous ‘Great Man’ approach to history. Such a move privileged the idealized space of the laboratory, thereby ruling out experiments performed in situ in homes, farms, mines, factories, or fields. The result was a historiographical disposition that assigned a causative role to the chemical concepts developed in conjunction with the instruments and methods attributed to laboratory settings: an act that reconfirmed the status of canonized chemists, and implicitly made them central nodes in knowledge networks that honed and dispersed the theoretical framework of chemistry. Although this model was conceptually useful (especially in light of the accessibility of primary sources), it effectively marginalized provincial chemists (among others) by placing them at the end of a long chain of ideas that emanated from a distant expert. Such a one-directional approach treated local chemists as if they were intellectual automatons waiting to be directed by an unseen hand.


Eighteenth Century Chemical Principle Geological Stratum Chemical Revolution Unseen Hand 
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    Ibid., 407. He also notes that crystals form more easily when the saline liquid is heated, which could possibly be linked to Cullen’s thoughts on the material basis for heat and coldness. See William Cullen, “Of the Cold Produced by Evaporating Fluids, and of Some Other Means of Producing Cold,” Essays and Observations, Physical and Literary 2, 1756, 145–56.Google Scholar
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    These were included in Essays Relating to Agriculture; vol. 1 (1797) contains extended essays entitled “Of Enclosures of Fences,” “On Draining Bogs and Swampy Grounds,” and “On the Proper Method of Levelling High Ridges.” The practices outlined in these works could potentially increase the productivity of land several times over. To this end, Anderson was keen to protect the originality of his innovations (chemical or otherwise). See the anonymous review of the revised 1797 version of his bogs essay in the Scots Magazine 60, 1798, 840–41.Google Scholar
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    Walker’s mineralogy and geology lectures suggest that he held there were a series of floods that happened at different times and created different saline solutions (and hence, different types of cementation). In his introductory comments to his lectures on earths, Black stated that the “materials” of geological strata had been “arranged by water, depositing or arranging them one over another, in succession.” Black, Elements, 2, 11–12.Google Scholar
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    Andrew Duncan, senior (1744–1828) lectured on medical jurisprudence at the University of Edinburgh during the 1790s, and in 1796 the medical faculty created a professorship for the subject.Google Scholar
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    Anderson explicitly states that he had performed several of experiments on his own. For an example of his own experiments on slaked lime, see Anderson, Agriculture, 410. Crystal formation was witnessed by himself (410) in his own experiments and by professors in the medical school.Google Scholar
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    He avers that “within the memory of man,” travellers in Matlock had witnessed the “rapid” growth of calcareous strata; ibid., 417.Google Scholar
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    Although no formal study has been published on the chemical content of the Scots Magazine, a cursory survey of the volumes published between 1750 and 1800 shows that applied chemistry was discussed in almost every issue. Some of these articles mention chemistry only in passing, while others were meant to educate. Even in 1800, lime was still a popular topic; see for example, “A Durable Cement,” Scots Magazine 62, 1800, 176; “Lime as a Manure,” ibid., 399; “[A Patent] for Preparing the Oxygenated Muriates of Limes,” ibid., 424; “[New Patent] for a Cement,” ibid., 714.Google Scholar
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    William Cullen, “Of Vitrescent Earths and Vitrifications… by Cullen,” Glasgow University Library MS Cullen 268/8; “A Chemical Examination of Common Simple Stones & Earths … by William Cullen with Notes [Incomplete] on Alkali Earths and the Earth’s Structure,” Glasgow University Library MS Cullen 264, fol. 1.Google Scholar
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    John Walker, Adversaria (1766–72), Bound MS, Glasgow University Library MS Murray 27, f. 157.Google Scholar

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© Springer 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  • Matthew D. Eddy
    • 1
  1. 1.Centre for the History of Medicine and DiseaseUniversity of DurhamGermany

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