Elizabeth Fulhame

Chemist

Elizabeth-Fulhame-title-page-London-1794-CHF

Image courtesy of National Library of Scotland

Elected as an honorary member of the Chemical Society of Philadelphia

  • BORN 1750 Aberdeen, Scotland
  • DIED 1820? London, England, UK
  • RESIDENCE Aberdeen, UK

Education

Details of her birth and death dates, as well as her education, are unknown. Her husband studied chemistry in Edinburgh, and she may have been self-taught. Her work shows her to be a skilled chemist

Scientific Achievement

Wrote a single scientific work in 1794 : An Essay on Combustion with a View to a New Art of Dying and Painting… It contains a large number of meticulously recorded experiments she carried out between 1780 and 1794 in her quest to make ‘cloths of gold, silver and other metals by chemical processes’. With the scientific knowledge we have today, we may dismiss these attempts as pseudoscience. However Mrs Fulhame was following a well-established alchemical tradition, also practised by well-known scientists such as Robert Boyle (1627-1691) and Isaac Newton (1642-1727). Her experiments were perfectly valid explorations of the natural and material world.

Occupation

Chemist, whose work was cited and admired by eminent chemists of her day, including Professor Thomas Thomson FRS FRSE. A French journal, Annales de chime, contained a long and favourable review by a doctor and chemist in Geneva. When her work was republished in the USA, the editor called her ‘the very ingenious Mrs Fulhame’ describing her experiments as ‘numerous and well-conducted’. She had, he said, successfully opposed ‘the opinions of some of our fathers in science’.

Did You Know?

The preface to Elizabeth Fulhame’s ‘Essay…’ talks of the work of the French scientist, Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier, and is dated 5 November 1794. In fact by then, Lavoisier was dead, having been executed by guillotine in May 1794. He was of noble birth, and had a powerful position in the French regime at the time of the French Revolution. We do not know whether this news would have reached Mrs Fulhame when she was writing.

An Inspiring Woman

The experiments described in the book are worthy of any modern laboratory notebook. She says exactly which materials and equipment she used, and shows she has read widely the works of scientists of her day, including Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) and Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier (1743-1794). Mrs Fulhame is not afraid to disagree with some of these eminent men. Yet, like any modern scientist prepared to accept that her/his hypothesis may be wrong, she expresses herself willing ‘to relinquish [her proposition] as soon as a more rational appears’. Her views on how she may be regarded as a woman promoting these ideas are sharply expressed in the preface to the work: ‘Some are so ignorant that they grow sullen and silent, and are chilled with horror at the sight of any thing, that bears the semblance of learning, in whatever shape it may appear; and should the spectre appear in the shape of woman, the pangs, which they suffer, are truly dismal.’