Montreal Dickens Fellowship
for the best of times

Dr. Joe Schwarcz, Director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society, addressed the Montreal Dickens Fellowship on March 7, 2017 on the topic of “Science in the Victorian Era”.

Dr. Joe, as he is affectionately known, delivered a fascinating slide-illustrated talk. He enjoys the Victorian period himself because he is a fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels about detective Sherlock Holmes who solved crimes using forensic science and analytical chemistry during the Victorian and Edwardian eras.

The Victorian era, the time of Queen Victoria’s reign from 1837 until her death in 1901, was a time of tremendous scientific discovery and medical advances. Dr. Joe told us that he could teach a whole course on the subject. In one hour, he promised to give us a taste of the subject.
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Anesthesia was a discovery of Scottish obstetrician Dr. James Young Simpson. In 1853, Dr. John Snow administered chloroform to Queen Victoria when she was in labour with her eighth child, Prince Leopold. This was the beginning of the popularization of anesthesia during childbirth.
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Dr. John Snow is also considered to be the father of epidemiology. He mapped the cases of cholera during London’s outbreak in 1854 and noticed that they were concentrated around Broad Street. He discovered that there was a public water pump taking sewage-contaminated water from the River Thames. The germ theory of disease had not yet been developed and disease from water was a novel idea. Dr. Snow directed London’s mayor to disable the pump by removing its handle. This was the birth of understanding contagious disease and the beginning of improvements to water and waste systems and general public health.
British surgeon Joseph Lister pioneered antiseptic surgery and is considered the father of modern surgery. He paid attention to French chemist Louis Pasteur’s research that micro-organisms are responsible for disease. Carbolic acid, today known as phenol, had been used to remove the smell of rotting sewage in England and he suspected that it was removing disease-causing organisms. He began spraying a solution of phenol in his operating room which significantly decreased the incidence of post-operative infections and deaths.

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Sir William Crookes was a chemist and physicist who developed vacuum tubes, known as Crookes tubes. He used these vacuum tubes to investigate cathode rays. His experimental work was the foundation of many important discoveries in chemistry and physics.

In 1897, J. J. Thomson showed that cathode rays were composed of previously unknown negatively charged particles. For his discovery, he is known as the Father of the Electron. Wilhelm Roentgen detected that Crookes tubes emitted electromagnetic rays in a wavelength range he called X-rays. This scientific breakthrough revolutionized diagnostic and therapeutic medicine.

Rubber is a natural product harvested in the form of latex from the Hevea tree native to South America. Indigenous peoples discovered its property of water resistance and made sheets and primitive galoshes out of it. Columbus learned about the substance from these natives and introduced it to North America. Joseph Priestley observed that a piece of the material would rub out pencil marks on paper, hence the name “rubber”.
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The Victorians made many important discoveries related to rubber. Scottish chemist Charles Macintosh invented waterproof fabric. The Mackintosh raincoat is named after him. The production of rubberized coats was an important advance in the UK’s rainy climate. In North America, unfortunately, the rubber in the fabric melted in warmer weather.


American Charles Goodyear dedicated himself to solving rubber’s problem of becoming hard and brittle in the winter and soft and gooey in the summer. He accidentally discovered the process of vulcanization in 1839 when he dropped rubber he had treated with sulphur on a hot stove. The vulcanized rubber with its disulfide bonds between individual polymer chains now had new properties. It was less sticky, more resistant and elastic. Vulcanization is a name borrowed from Vulcan, the Roman god of fire.
Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, was a huge patron of science and technology. He organized the Great Exhibition of London shown at the stunning Crystal Palace in 1851.

Goodyear created an astonishing display, a “Vulcanite Court”, in which absolutely everything was made of vulcanized rubber, from furniture to draperies to rubber plants.

Thomas Hancock also had a large display stand of goods made out of the material. He was a British scientist who took out a patent for the vulcanization of rubber in England several weeks before Goodyear in the U.S.
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Whatever the patent disputes between Goodyear and Hancock, the discovery of the process of vulcanization revolutionized the use and applications of rubber and changed the industrial world. Related discoveries followed in quick succession.

John Dunlop developed the first pneumatic or air-filled tire, a big improvement over wooden wheels on cobblestones and country roads! France’s Michelin brothers developed the first replaceable pneumatic tires.
Prince Albert highly esteemed the German chemist, Justus von Liebig. After an extended visit, Liebig insulted the Prince by writing to a colleague that “England is not a land of science, there is only a widely practised dilettantism, the chemists are ashamed to call themselves chemists because the pharmacists, who are despised, have assumed this name”. Dr. Joe noted that pharmacists in England are called chemists to this day.

Liebig’s insult led the Prince to invite August Wilhelm von Hofmann, Liebig’s assistant, to become the first director of the newly founded Royal College of Chemistry in London. Hoffmann made important contributions to organic chemistry. His research on the coal tar aniline lay the basis of the aniline dye industry. He trained a generation of brilliant chemists, one of whom was William Henry Perkin.

Hofmann had noted the similarity of aniline’s chemical composition to that of quinine. Quinine was the the only medicine efficacious against the terrible disease of malaria. There was not an adequate supply of this natural substance that came from the bark of the Cinchona tree in South America. Hofmann believed that an oxidizing agent could be added to aniline to synthesize quinine and gave the task of discovering this agent to the eighteen-year-old Perkin. The young chemist spilled some oxidized aniline in the lab sink and tried to clean it with alcohol. The sink turned purple, marking the accidental discovery of the first synthetic dye, mauveine.


Making a dye in a lab was a significant discovery and much easier than extracting colour from natural sources, such as purple from molluscs. Perkin went into commercial production. Queen Victoria liked the mauve dye and made it fashionable. The 1890’s were known as the Mauve Decade. Even the basic penny postage stamp in Great Britain was dyed mauve - the Penny Lilac!
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Perkin retired young, a wealthy man and became an elder statesman of chemistry. He was awarded the first Perkin Medal to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of his discovery of mauveine. Today, the Perkin Medal is the highest honour awarded to the best talent in American industrial chemistry. Dr. Joe described the Perkin dinner as one of the highlights of the chemical year. An invitation to the dinner is always accompanied by a bow tie for men and a scarf for women dyed mauve from the original dye.

The reason that the discovery of aniline dyes was so significant was because it meant that novel substances could be manufactured synthetically on a large scale in labs. Paul Ehrlich discovered that the synthetic dye, methylene blue, would not only stain, but also kill malaria-causing parasites. Methylene blue became the first synthetic drug used in medicine. This marked the beginning of the pharmaceutical industry in 1891. It was in Ehrlich’s lab that Salvarsan was discovered, the world’s first antibiotic. The arsenic in the dye would be absorbed by and then kill the bacterium responsible for syphilis, without harming the patient. Salvarsan was widely used up until the discovery of penicillin.
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Arsenic was also implicated in the dye industry. Victorian men who wore fashionable red socks developed terrible skin rashes. The mordant used to allow the dye to bite into the fabric (“mordre” is the French verb “to bite”) was an arsenic compound.

Scheele’s Green or Paris Green was a very popular colour used to dye Victorian wallpaper, paint, furnishings and fabrics. Arsenic was one of the substances used to create this stunning green pigment. The situation was worsened in damp Victorian homes because mould in the wallpaper would feed on the arsenic, releasing the poisonous gas arsine. There is speculation that this is what killed Napoleon. The emperor was exiled to the damp St. Helena where his room was papered in bright green.

Victorian women desired a pale complexion. This implied wealth because it demonstrated that the lady did not perform manual labour outdoors in the sun. To achieve this ideal of beauty, women applied skin lotions which often contained toxic levels of arsenic.


It was during the Victorian era that Darwin published his theory of evolution by natural selection. His ideas shook Victorian society because they contradicted the creationist worldview.

Joseph Swan invented the first electric light bulb in Newcastle upon Tyne. Unfortunately, he was never able to develop a filament that was long lasting. American Thomas Edison made the light bulb functional by developing a carbonized bamboo filament. Although Edison took out more patents than anyone in history, the one invention that was uniquely his was the phonograph.

The inventor and electrical engineer, Guglielmo Marconi, developed a wireless telegraphy system based on radio waves. The end of the Victorian period marked the beginning of transatlantic communication.
The only available entertainment during the Victorian era was live. Magic shows were very popular. “Evanion” was the stage name of Victorian conjuror, Henry Evans, who performed magic and illusions all over London as well as for the British Royal Family. Austrian Ludwig Dobler also performed for Queen Victoria. It was through this conjuror that Dickens became enamoured with magic and began perfecting tricks. The novelist billed himself as “The Unparalleled Necromancer” and performed sophisticated shows for children and adults.
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Dr. Joe, an amateur magician himself, entertained and amazed us with marvellous sleight-of-hand tricks and feats of mind reading of the type that Dickens himself would have performed!
Unlike Dickens, Dr. Joe does not believe in ghosts and he certainly knows that humans cannot spontaneously combust, as does Krook, the rag and bottle merchant and collector of papers, in Dickens’ Bleak House!
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To thank Dr. Joe for his entertaining and informative lecture, Dr. Ellie Clavier-Rothstein presented him with a copy of Victorian Pharmacy: Rediscovering Home Remedies and Recipes authored by Jane Eastoe with a forward by Ruth Goodman. This is a book filled with beautiful photographs from the BBC television series on which it is based, “The Victorian Pharmacy”.

Since the talk was just before Purim, Ellie presented Dr. Joe with a pretty tin full of her delicious, home-baked Hamantaschen.
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Thank you Dr. Joe for sharing your wealth of knowledge with us. We all thoroughly enjoyed your presentation!!