Creating an Image of Science: Persuasion and Iconography in A. Cressy Morrison's Man in a Chemical World

By Ede, Andrew | Canadian Journal of History, December 2004 | Go to article overview

Creating an Image of Science: Persuasion and Iconography in A. Cressy Morrison's Man in a Chemical World


Ede, Andrew, Canadian Journal of History


Le portrait de la science et du scientifique moderne fut le resultat d'interactions complexes entre les savants, les sources mediatiques et le public. En 1937, les chimistes etaient le groupe de savants le plus large et le plus puissant dans les Etats Unis; mais ils faisaient pietres figures aupres du public a cause de la guerre chimique. Le livre de Morrison a eu pour but premier de relever et d'americaniser cette image des chimistes. Dans cet article, nous explorons le role de ce livre dans le contexte de l'epoque et examinons les images pleines d'accents religieux qui ont contribue a creer l'embleme du seientifique comme "l'homme au sarrau de laboratoire blanc".

Following World War I, American chemists had an image problem. The first part of the problem was the negative attitude of the public towards chemical warfare. Chemistry, and science more generally, had been catapulted into the public eye because of gas warfare. Chemistry had moved from university laboratories and distant institutes to the battlefield and, combined with modern aircraft, seemed poised to threaten not just the soldier at the front line but all of civilization. The "Chemists' War," as it was called, frightened people, and this fear was expressed in the news media, popular fiction, and film. Between 1919 and 1939 there were never fewer than twenty-two pieces (stories, articles, of letters to the editor) per year in the New York Times on chemical warfare, keeping the issue constantly before the public. (1) The defense of chemical weapons by chemists as scientific and humane did not convince the public of either the utility of the weapons or the humanity of their advocates.

In addition to countering negative press that arose from the public reaction to gas warfare, the chemical community wanted to refashion itself. There was a strong desire among American chemists to raise both their social status at home and to escape the shadow of European science. The war curtailed American travel to Europe for advanced education and led to a sharp jump in graduate education at American schools, as well as a much greater demand for domestically educated chemists. (2) This offered the opportunity to establish a separate identity for American science as the dependence on European training was severed during the war years.

Scientists were somewhat reluctant to deal with issues of popular image but, as the debate over chemical warfare showed, what the public thought about science and scientists could have a major impact on everything from funding to editorial opinion. A. Cressy Morrison's Man in a Chemical World (1937) was part of a larger project conceived by the American Chemical Society (ACS) to promote chemistry and the chemical industries in the face of both bad press and the Great Depression. The ACS wanted to make the 1935 annual convention a big meeting, both for members and as a way of demonstrating the importance of chemistry to the public. They chose as their theme the tercentenary of chemical industries in America. (3) The celebration took place on 24 April 1935 at an expanded annual meeting of the Society in New York City. It was the largest meeting of chemists (and therefore of scientists) ever held to that time, attracting some 10,000 delegates from around the world. (4) It was front-page news in New York and was reported across the country and in Europe.

Setting the origins of the American chemical industries at 1635 was a bit of a stretch. There were barely any Europeans in America in 1635, let alone chemical industries, but some references to the manufacturing of soap, pitch, and tanning in the early days of colonization, as well as records of alchemical interests among the settlers, were excuse enough to claim the long history of chemistry in the United States. The official poster for the tercentenary (Figure 1) showed a native in loincloth and feathered headband working with a Pilgrim stirring a giant steaming cauldron.

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