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  • From Egyptian Science to Victorian Magic:On the Origins of Chemistry in Victorian Histories of Science
  • Susan Hroncek (bio)

The Victorians' complex, often contradictory regard for the origins of chemistry in the Middle East is perhaps best exemplified in a footnote to H. Rider Haggard's She (1887). The British narrator, Horace Holly, describes Ayesha, a woman of Middle Eastern origin, as "a great chemist" who "had one of the caves fitted up as a laboratory, and although her appliances were necessarily rude, the results that she attained were . . . sufficiently surprising" (184n). Despite his surprise at Ayesha's accomplishments, Holly calls chemistry her "only amusement and occupation" (184n), as though it is merely a hobby—one, furthermore, that comprises haphazard experiments. For Holly, both Ayesha's gender and ethnicity devalue her authority as a chemical practitioner, and thus her practice of chemistry will always appear to him, a British academic, as more akin to sorcery or witchcraft than to the "modern" chemistry of Victorian laboratories and factories. Ayesha's dangerous combination of the Eastern, feminine, and occult would prove a popular means of fictionalizing major sources of concern regarding the origins of chemistry beyond the borders of Western materialist practice.1 Such fictional representations were significantly influenced by contemporaneous histories, popular science articles, and occultist discourses that characterized chemistry, its origins, and its relationship to the occult within frameworks that largely supported British Victorian perceptions regarding how a science was defined, including what constituted "legitimate" scientific practice.

Chemistry's origins in the Middle East and alchemy challenged its position as a legitimate, materialist science in a period marked by both imperial anxieties and tensions between a growing occultist movement and the practical uses of chemistry in, for instance, the pharmaceutical or textile industries. Despite its prominent status as the "most practically-relevant science" of the nineteenth century because of its key role in industrial and medical innovations (Donnelly 195), chemistry continued to play an ambiguous role in the nineteenth-century public imagination (Levere 190; Schummer 100). Chemistry's origins at what Roger Luckhurst calls "the imperial margin," where "narratives concerning occult relation . . . abounded," blurs, and indeed challenges, the distinction between Western institutional science [End Page 213] and a specifically Eastern, or imperial, magic ("Knowledge" 200). Similarly, these origins influence the ways in which, as Gillian Beer argues, chemistry is simultaneously uncanny and homely, capable of incredible transformations yet "caught into the ordinary processes of living" (322). While recent historians of science predominately refer to chemistry's development in early modern Europe (Călian 173–74; Principe 307; Weyer 66–67), the "time-haunted" Victorians (Gilmour 245), with their obsession with ancestry and legitimacy, instead probe the science's earliest practice. Yet, by tracing the lineage of chemistry, the Victorians discovered a science whose practitioners employed methods they would regard as suspiciously mystical but whose key technological innovations—distillation, filtration, and nomenclature—were developed not by Europeans but by Middle Eastern and African peoples.

In this article, I examine the representation of ancient Egypt and the Middle East in nineteenth-century discourses concerning chemistry, bringing to light the conflicting narratives of the history of chemistry that emerged during the Victorian period. For instance, while eminent chemists like Thomas Thomson and Ernst von Meyer hailed Middle Eastern peoples as the creators of modern chemistry, scientific philosopher William Whewell outright denied that the East had any influence over the development of Western science. This debate filtered down to such popular periodicals as Household Words, in which lay authors drew more specific links between the history of chemistry and, for instance, British technological excellence or occultist challenges to the institutionalization of science. Central to these various narratives are two questions: whether knowledge derived in the East is legitimate and authoritative, and whether the historical conflation of magic and natural philosophy can, or indeed should, be reconciled with post-Enlightenment scientific ideology. The variance between those histories, particularly those that outright denied the Middle Eastern origins of chemistry, demonstrates the degree to which Victorian authors were prepared to manipulate history in their struggle to define chemistry and legitimize its practice despite Eastern and occult influences. The texts that I analyze comprise only a sample...


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pp. 213-228
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