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Molecular World: Making Modern Chemistry front cover by The MIT Press

Dr Catherine M. Jackson, an alum from Jim Staunton’s group, is publishing Molecular World: Making Modern Chemistry, a fresh account of chemistry's quest to understand and manipulate organic nature.

As a PhD student, Catherine (Clare 1982) researched polyketide biosynthesis under the supervision of Professor Jim Staunton. Her thesis was examined by Professor Chris Abell. Now Associate Professor of the History of Science at the University of Oxford, Catherine’s work uses history to understand chemistry’s present and future, as well as its past.

“When I began this project, I read many accounts that claimed theories of valence and structure drove the development of synthetic organic chemistry. But my research has uncovered a very different story. Nineteenth-century chemists wanted to understand medicinal alkaloids including morphine and quinine. This ambition led to new ways of working in glass and it drove the turn to synthesis. In all this work, what I’ve called ‘laboratory reasoning’ enabled chemists to bridge wet chemistry and abstract concepts. Practice--not cutting-edge theory--produced the molecular world.”

Molecular World: Making Modern Chemistry will be published by the MIT Press on 4 July 2023. The book explains why chemists including Justus Liebig, August Wilhelm Hofmann and Albert Ladenburg began to investigate medicinal alkaloids, and how their work helped create modern chemistry.

Franz Varrentrapp and Heinrich Will, “Neue Methode zur Bestimmung des Stickstoffs in organischen Verbindungen,” Annalen der Chemie und Pharmacie 39 (1841): Tafel I, figure 3. Courtesy of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries.

Author Photo: Andrew C. Warwick