Historical roots of the “mad scientist”: Chemists in nineteenth-century literature

This paper traces the historical roots of the “mad scientist,” a concept that has powerfully shaped the public image of science up to today, by investigating the representations of chemists in nineteenth-century Western literature. I argue that the creation of this literary figure was the strongest of four critical literary responses to the emergence of modern science in general and of chemistry in particular. The role of chemistry in this story is crucial because early nineteenth-century chemistry both exemplified modern experimental laboratory research and induced, due to its rapid growth, a ramification and fragmentation of knowledge that undermined former ideals of the unity of knowledge under the umbrella of metaphysics and religion. Because most writers considered contemporary chemistry an offspring of “wrong alchemy,” all four responses drew on the medieval literary figure of the “mad alchemist” to portray chemists. Whereas early writers considered the quest for scientific knowledge to be altogether in vain, later writers pointed out the narrow-minded goals and views specifically of chemistry. A third response moved that criticism to a metaphysical and religious level, by relating chemistry to materialism, nihilism, atheism and hubris. The fourth response, the “mad scientist,” elaborated on the hubris theme by attaching moral perversion to the “mad alchemist.”.
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