Accepted paper:

Clearing 'poisonous clouds': the ambivalence and impact of mediating approaches in international chemistry after the First World War.


Jorrit Smit (Utrecht University)

Paper short abstract:

Neutral chemists played an important role in the reconstruction of chemistry’s international knowledge network in the 1920’s. The presentation and impact of mediating efforts are compared. Neutrality, first a predicament, became an opportunity to harmonize national pride and internationalist ideals.

Paper long abstract:

From propaganda to poison gas, from fertilizer to fuel: the mobilization of scientists in the First World War manifested a concrete conflict between the alleged universality of scientific knowledge and the particularity of patriotic politics. International scientific communities, and the blooming knowledge network of chemistry in particular, were severely disrupted by the 'chemists' war'. The antagonism substantialized in the exclusion of Central Power chemists from international organizations and the publication of rivalling atomic weight tables. Still, chemistry was the only scientific discipline to achieve full restoration of its international community before the 1930's. How were the 'poisonous clouds' of the war dissolved in the knowledge network of chemistry? The special importance of chemical 'mediators' from neutral nations is investigated in this paper. By comparing the approach, motivation and reception of Swedish (S.A. Arrhenius) and Dutch (E. Cohen) attempts it is clarified how 'neutrality' was fueled not only by internationalist ideals but also by cultural nationalism. Both mediators relied on the informal revival of pre-war personal networks of which Cohen's 'International Reunion of Chemists' (Smit, 2014) is an early example. The presentation and reception of such events was commonly larded with nationalistic rhetoric. It was the progression from a personal to a practical approach that distinguished the Dutch from the Swedish mediating mission. This proved more fruitful than the intellectual approach of e.g. the American chemist W.A. Noyes. The role of the neutral mediators in the successful rebuilding of international chemistry demonstrates the harmonization of internationalist endeavors with national pride.

panel P02
Closing the door on globalization: cultural nationalism and scientific internationalism in the 19th and 20th centuries