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Elizabeth Fulhame, the 18th century chemistry pioneer who faded from history

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Chemistry World, June 2022

The discovery of catalysis is usually attributed to Swedish chemist Jons Jakob Berzelius in 1835. Although he named the phenomenon, the underlying principle was first described 40 years earlier by Elizabeth Fulhame, a Scottish chemist who remains largely uncelebrated for her remarkable experimentation and chemical theorizing. Historians Marelene and Geoffrey Rayner-Canham argue in their 1998 book Women in Chemistry that Fulhame was ‘the first solo woman researcher of modern chemistry‘. She disagreed with many of the leading scientists of her time and with hindsight was very often on the right side of the scientific debate.

Fulhame only published one book in 1794, with the long-winded title An Essay Of Combustion With A View To A New Art Of Dying And Painting Wherein The Phlogistic And Antiphlogistic Hypotheses Are Proved Erroneous. The work describes her 15 years of meticulous experimentation into basic chemistry and the wider theoretical conclusions that she drew.

We know little about Fulhame except that she lived in Edinburgh and was married to an Irish doctor, Thomas Fulhame, who was himself studying chemistry at the University of Edinburgh under the tutelage of Joseph Black. Here, he would have covered the chemical properties of metals and their salts.

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