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Chemistry

Historical Information

Searching for Historical Literature

Before Chemical Abstracts

Modern chemical science had its origins in the Enlightenment period, and so did its literature. Papers on chemical topics were published in many scholarly journals, often those of various academies and philosophical societies throughout Europe and America. Journals dedicated to chemistry, such as Crell's Chemisches Journal (1778) and Lavoisier's Annales de Chimie (1789), began to appear in the late 18th century. Abstracts of literature appeared almost simultaneously in various publications, including Crell's. Yet for most English-speakers, 1907 -- the year Chemical Abstracts began -- is the watershed date that now serves as a somewhat arbitrary demarcation between "modern" and "historical" chemistry. This guide lists some resources that can be helpful in identifying and locating older chemical literature.  Remember that your best resource in this area is your librarian.

Note:  It was common practice through the 19th century for an author to publish multiple versions of an article in different journals and languages, in order to maximize his audience.  Keep this in mind when tracking down a reference from this period - the paper may be available in English as well as German and French.  The Catalogue of Scientific Papers (see below under Historical Indexes) helpfully collates these versions in a single entry.


  • JACS and J. Phys. Chem. back to their first volumes, plus selected landmark papers
  • Chemical Society journal archives (now Royal Society of Chemistry), 1841-forward, including <cite>J. Chem. Soc. Abstracts</cite>.
  • ca. 38,000 U.S. patent records from 1808-1906
  • ca. 70,000 machine-translated records from <cite>Chemisches Zentralblatt</cite>, 1897-1906 (see below)
  • JACS and J. Phys. Chem. back to their first volumes, plus selected landmark papers</li>
  • Chemical Society journal archives (now Royal Society of Chemistry), 1841-forward, including J. Chem. Soc. Abstracts.

The CSP is by far the best source for identifying 19th century scholarly papers by author in all the sciences except medicine and surgery.  It was compiled by the Royal Society of London.  The Catalogue is an author bibliography divided by date ranges:  v. 1-6: 1800-1863; v. 7-8: 1864-1873; v. 9-11: 1874-1883; v.12: Supplementary volume, 1800-1883; v.13-19: 1884-1900.  Multiple versions and translations of the same article are collated in a single entry.  Separate subject indexes were planned, but only three were published, covering mathematics, mechanics, and physics. See the profile from the Scholarly Societies Project.  Breakdown of volumes for purposes of isolating and browsing in scanned versions:

  1. 1800-1863, A-CLU
  2. 1800-1863, COA-GRA
  3. 1800-1863, GRE-LEZ
  4. 1800-1863, LHE-POZ
  5. 1800-1863, PRA-TIZ
  6. 1800-1863, TKA-Z
  7. 1864-1873, A-HYR
  8. 1864-1873, I-Z
  9. 1874-1883, A-GIS
  10. 1874-1883, GIS-PET
  11. 1874-1883, PET-Z
  12. 1800-1883, A-Z SUPPLEMENT (check this volume too if article isn't found in vols. 1-11)
  13. 1884-1900, A-B
  14. 1884-1900, C-FITTIG
  15. 1884-1900, FITTIN-H
  16. 1884-1900, I-MARB
  17. 1884-1900, MARC-P
  18. 1884-1900, Q-S
  19. 1884-1900, T-Z

Various scanned library copies are also available:

The Catalogue of Scientific Papers was continued after 1901 by a multi-part index published by the Royal Society.  Citations are found in each issue's author section; an elaborate classified subject index accompanies each.  This unwieldy and expensive project ended due to World War I. A reprint "miniprint" version was published in 1969 (magnifying glass recommended).  Part D, in 14 issues, covered chemistry through 1914.  Scans can be found here:

This pioneering German abstracting journal began in 1830 as Pharmaceutisches Central-blatt, and later (1850-55) Chemische-Pharmaceutisches Central-blatt.  After 1897 it was published by the Deutsche Chemische Gesellschaft.  Although it is a challenge to use for the non-German reader, it is an important resource for identifying historical chemical and pharmacy publications.  CZ's expert coverage of European chemistry was superior to CA's until World War II, and some of the two million published abstracts were more like brief review articles, which are occasionally cited on their own merits.  CZ's quality and timeliness declined sharply after the war, not helped by its being co-produced in West and East Germany.  It ceased in 1969. A listing of periodicals covered by CZ can be found in Periodica chimica (2nd ed., 1952 and a 1962 supplement, by M. Pflücke, QD 9 P45 1952).
CAS has added selected machine-translated records from the 1897-1906 period to the CAPLUS file in SciFinder. In 2016 CAS launched the entire database as an add-on product in SciFinder, but UT Austin does not subscribe to this feature. Some scanned volumes prior to 1923 are open to public view in the Hathi Trust catalog. CZ has also been digitized by FIZ CHEMIE Berlin for purchase as an intranet database. 

Abstracts in Other Journals

Prior to the establishment of formal indexing services in the 20th century, some major journals published their own abstracts of selected literature. In addition to the journals listed above, others were:
  • Annalen der Chemie. 1832-60
  • Annales de chimie et de physique. 1789-1870
  • Bulletin de la Société chimique de France. (Répertoire de chimie pure and Répertoire de chimie appliqué) 1857-?
  • Chemische Berichte. ca.1880-96  (The German Chemical Society published abstracts (Referate) in its Berichte from about 1880 (in a separate section after 1884) until it took over publication of Chemisches Zentralblatt in 1897.)
  • Journal für praktische Chemie. 1834-73
  • Journal of physical chemistry. 1896-1906
  • Journal of the American Chemical Society. 1879-90 (JACS published abstracts from major foreign journals starting in its first volume in 1879; this section disappeared after 1890. (A separate section abstracting patents of interest to chemists can also be found in these early years.) After 1897 the Review of American Chemical Research was included as a supplement. The pre-1890 abstracts have been digitized in the ACS Archive and have been added to the CAPLUS file in SciFinder.)
  • Journal of the Society of Chemical Industry. 1882-1925 (merged into British Abstracts)
 

History & Biography

The history of science is largely inseparable from the study of the men and women who did the work.  Thus most of the sources listed here are biographical in nature. Histories of pre-modern chemistry and alchemy are held primarily in PCL, while modern chemical history is centered in the Chemistry Library.  The Harry Ransom Center has a significant collection of rare and early scientific books.  

Academic Genealogy


Books and Directories


Other Sources

Biographies

Book-length biographies of chemists are uncommon and are usually limited to the most famous and influential historical figures. Search in the Library Catalog using the person's name as a subject or a keyword. Chemistry biographies are classified in the QD 21-22 area.
 
Memoirs
Some chemists publish their own reminiscences and autobiographies in book form. Search the library catalog or WorldCat using their names as an author or subject, or browse in the QD 21-22 area. During the 1990s the American Chemical Society published a series of personal memoirs titled Profiles, Pathways, and Dreams.
 
Obituaries
  • Deceased chemists may receive an obituary tribute in a journal relevant to their area of research, which summarizes their career and achievements. Prior to 1972 these were usually indexed in Chemical Abstracts:   search the name as a reference topic in SciFinder.
  • Members of the National Academy of Sciences and fellows of the Royal Society of London often receive substantial obituaries published in those organizations' respective biographical memoirs.
  • Wiley-VCH has compiled a List of Obituaries and Biographical Notes published in several major European journals over the years.
  • American chemists may receive a brief obituary notice in Chemical & Engineering News, which published annual subject indexes until 1997. Look in the indexes under the heading "Obituaries."
Festschrifts
A Festschrift honors a scholar with a collection of original papers, usually on the occasion of a birthday or retirement. These invariably contain a laudatory biographical essay and bibliography of the subject's major publications.  Search in the library catalog using the person's name as a subject or a title keyword.  Book-form Festschrifts are not as common as they used to be; it is now more typical for them to appear as a dedicated issue of a journal. There is unfortunately no reliable way to search for special "titled" journal issues. It helps if you know the journal and year of publication, and you can do a name search on the journal's web site.
 
Collected Works
Occasionally the publications of a notable scientist will be collected and republished in book form. Search the library catalog under the person's name as an author.
 
Histories
You can find biographical information in histories of science, chemistry, or specific subfields. Use the subheading --History with relevant subject headings, such as: Chemistry--History or Chemistry, Analytic--History.  Also, browse the shelves at QD 11-20 for material on the history of chemistry in general.
 
Bibliographies
Historical listings of articles published after 1907 can be compiled searching Chemical Abstracts, but pre-20th-century papers can be harder to identify. See the guide to Historical Literature for more information on pre-1907 indexes and abstracts.
 
Archives
Most historical resources are not published, but may be preserved as archival collections. If you're doing serious research, you must determine if an institution keeps an archive for the person in question. The best way to start is to contact the library or the department of the university or institution where the subject did significant work, and inquire about their papers or other primary resources (such as photo or clipping files, local newsletters, memorials, etc.) that might exist there. Searching that library's online catalog for the person's name is a good idea too, in case any of this unpublished material has been cataloged. The Science History Institute's Othmer Library, located in Philadelphia, is one of the major repositories of archives on the history of chemistry. They may be able to advise on archival questions.

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