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Difficult Beginnings in Experimental Science at Oxford: the Gothic Chemistry Laboratory

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A curious appendage to the Oxford Museum of Natural History has an interesting history. Although, in its original form, its architecture may have suggested a chapel, it was built as a chemical laboratory in the 1850s. Was its Gothic style an idle fancy, or was it intended to contribute to some grand design? The choice of architectural style may suggest a purely aesthetic interpretation. Alternatively the high roof and ventilation of the laboratory points to a purely utilitarian purpose. Yet neither of these views can be accepted as more than a partial explanation. Overriding these is the dominant religious context of a university imbued with the values of the mid-Victorian Church of England. It would be a mistake to discount the university politics of the time. There is often a strong ideological basis to architecture. Oxford's classical curriculum was challenged by the claims of science and, among the sciences, chemistry suffered from particularly strong prejudices. Indeed its image represented a gross caricature. Yet, if chemistry was to be fully accepted, as an essentially experimental science, its pursuit demanded special facilities. The paper provides a study of the gradual acceptance of an experimental science in one particular social context.

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: School of History, Rutherford College University of Kent Canterbury, Kent CT2 7NX UK

Publication date: October 1, 2003

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