ONE of the joys of writing this column every week is that every so often I get to investigate a historical mystery and report on it to you, and today is one such occasion.

Regular readers will be aware that on Saturday, February 11, we will be celebrating the Eighth International Day of Women and Girls in Science. It will be marked across Scotland, and the growing role of women in STEM fields – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics – will be highlighted.

As I have explained, I have taken STEM in its broadest sense, particularly science, and in the run-up to next Saturday, I have promised to do my bit for Scottish women in science by presenting stories from history about extraordinary female Scots and their achievements that you may possibly have never heard about.

I began with Victoria Drummond, the UK’s first certificated female marine engineer, and continued last week with astronomer Williamina Fleming.

A reader then asked me when I would get to Mary Somerville (1780-1872) but the woman for whom the word “scientist” was coined has already been featured in The National, not least when she was revealed as the face on the Royal Bank of Scotland’s £10 polymer note.

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You can view these stories online – it’s best to take out a subscription if you wish to do so.

My intention this week and next is to concentrate on Scottish women scientists who, unlike Somerville, have not had the fame accorded to them which I believe they are due.

Which brings me neatly to the extraordinary case of Elizabeth Fulhame, a chemist who was a true pioneer of science and who is credited with being the first person to describe catalysis – the basis for a multi-million-pound industry today – and also worked on the photochemical processes that led to early photography.

Yet she gets little credit for her achievements and I believe that is because she only published one work and because, try as they might, historians have discovered very few facts about her life. She really is a historical mystery and is likely to remain so.

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We do not know for certain any of the key facts about her, and although I tried I was unable to add anything to the sum of knowledge about Fulhame’s life. We are not even certain about her own name for, maddeningly, in her only publication she calls herself “Mrs Fulhame”.

There is a theory that she was born in Aberdeen, but there is no evidence of her birth, or death, anywhere in Scotland. We do not know her birthdate or even which year she was born in.

At that time women were given a basic education thanks to the Presbyterian edict of a school in every parish, but they were most certainly not allowed to go to university and any studies of science had to be done in private.

Fulhame was fortunate in that respect as at some point in her late teens or early 20s she married an Irish doctor, Thomas Fulhame, an expert in infections who was studying chemistry at Edinburgh University under that great figure of the Scottish Enlightenment, Joseph Black (1728-99), the discoverer of magnesium and carbon dioxide.

We do know Thomas allowed, rather than encouraged his wife to have her studies of chemistry, and in 1780 she began the work that would occupy her for the next 14 years.

Olivia Campbell – best-selling author of Women in White Coats, about Elizabeth Blackwell, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Sophia Jex-Blake – wrote in a 2021 article about Fulhame: “Elizabeth says she found herself with an abundance of leisure time, and decided she wanted to see if she could infuse cloth with gold, silver, and other metals, by chemical processes.

She began dipping silk threads into nitrate of gold or other metal salts, then exposing it to light. When she mentioned the project to her husband and friends, they scoffed that it was ‘improbable’ she would ever succeed.

“Far from discouraging her, these naysayers gave Elizabeth a renewed sense of determination. She continued her research and reported that ‘after some time, I had the satisfaction of realising the idea, in some degree, by experiment’.”

That is a short and succinct description of the process of experimentation Fulhame carried out from 1780-93. She documented all her research and experiments, and in 1793 she met in London the great Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), who discovered oxygen.

He encouraged her to publish her findings, even though she disagreed with his views and those of other scientists concerning the theory that phlogiston was the fire-like element contained in every body and released by combustion.

Printed in London in 1794 her book was entitled: “An essay on COMBUSTION with a view to a new ART of DYING and PAINTING. Wherein the phlogistic and antiphlogistic hypotheses are proven erroneous.”

The Essay on Combustion, as it is generally known, had its generation in her wonderings on whether gold and silver could be impressed onto cloths such as silk in a form of dyeing. She wrote in the introduction: “I imagined in the beginning that a few experiments would determine the problem but experience soon convinced me that a very great number indeed were necessary, before such an art could be brought to any tolerable degree of perfection.”

The Essay contains accurate descriptions of 127 experiments – a fraction of her total works – that she carried out on pieces of cloth, usually silk, and how they reacted with metals ranging from gold and silver to lead and mercury, finding that water was the key agent in the various procedures she tried.

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Along the way she deduced the process we now know as catalysis, although she had no name for it.

In her conclusions she wrote: “Since in every instance of combustion water is decomposed, and one body oxygenated by the oxygen of the water, while another is restored to its combustible state by the hydrogen of the same fluid, it follows:

1. That the hydrogen of water is the only substance that restores bodies to their combustible state; 2. That water is the only source of the oxygen, which oxygenates combustible bodies; 3. That no case of combustion is effected by a single affinity.

“This view of combustion may serve to show how nature is always the same, and maintains her equilibrium by preserving the same quantities of air and water on the surface of our globe; for as fast as these are consumed in the various processes of combustion, equal quantities are formed, and rise regenerated like the Phenix [sic] from her ashes.”

Although some of her conclusions were eventually proven to be erroneous, there was no doubt that her Essay was superbly researched and no-one could argue that this amateur woman chemist had not proved her worth as a scientist.

Fulhame knew that she was going to be criticised, writing: “I was dubious about the propriety of publishing this essay. I therefore shewed some specimens of these metallic stuffs to persons whom I thought qualified to judge of them.

Some approved of them very much and were pleased to say that the invention would make an era in the arts; others thought it a pretty conceit and others were of opinion that the stuffs had not that splendour or burnished appearance, which could entitle them to public notice.”

She also knew she would receive criticism purely on account of being female: “It may appear presuming to some that I should engage in pursuits of this nature but averse from indolence, and having much leisure, my mind led me to this mode of amusement which I found entertaining and will, I hope, be thought inoffensive by the liberal and the learned.

“But censure is perhaps inevitable; for some are so ignorant that they grow sullen and silent and are chilled with horror at the sight of any thing that bears the semblance of learning, in whatever shape it may appear; and should the spectre appear in the shape of woman, the pangs which they suffer are truly dismal.”

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Her great fear was that someone else would steal her ideas. She wrote: “I published this essay in its present imperfect state in order to prevent the furacious attempts of the prowling plagiary, and the insidious pretender to chymistry [sic], from arrogating to themselves and assuming my invention in plundering silence; for there are those, who if they cannot by chymical, never fail by stratagem and mechanical means, to deprive industry of the fruits and fame of her labours.”

Like every true scientist, Fulhame knew that someone might come along and disprove her theories and conclusions. She wrote: “Every opinion must stand and fall by its own merits, I venture with diffidence to offer mine to the world, willing to relinquish it as soon as a more rational appears.”

The totally male leadership of the British science establishment did not take kindly to a woman telling them how things actually were, but neither was she ignored. American-born physicist Sir Benjamin Thompson (1753-1814) , who later became Count Rumford and co-founded the Royal Institution, praised her “lively” Essay.

The National: Sir Benjamin ThompsonSir Benjamin Thompson (Image: Web)

In 1798, it was reviewed in a French journal and translated into German, and in the US the Chemical Society of Philadelphia made her their first female honorary member. This led to the publication of the Essay in the US in 1810.

The unnamed editor of that American edition stated the real effect of Fulhame which was to break down the barriers that stopped women from entering science. He wrote: “Mrs Fulhame has now laid such bold claims to chemistry that we can no longer deny the sex the privilege of participating in this science also.”

Yet, after 1810, Elizabeth Fulhame disappears from the records and she was denied the credit for her discoveries. Swedish scientist Jons Jakob Berzelius claimed to have discovered chemical catalysis in 1835, describing it as “the property of exerting on other bodies an action which is very different from chemical affinity.

By means of this action, they produce decomposition in bodies, and form new compounds into the composition of which they do not enter.”

Surely that was what Fulhame described 40 years earlier. Clare Jarvis, writing for Physics Today, is in no doubt that Elizabeth Fulhame was first: “At some point in the course of her investigations, as she systematically varied her reaction conditions, Fulhame noticed some odd trends in her results.

“She dissolved her metals into solutions of wet ether and alcohol. When she let the silk dry completely before treating it with a reducing agent such as hydrogen gas, sulphur, or phosphorus, no reactions occurred. But there was a colour change when she reacted the damp silk immediately with one of those elements.

“Fulhame realised water was necessary to facilitate her reactions; in fact, water did such a good job that the reactions occurred at room temperature rather than at high-temperature smelting conditions.

“The term ‘catalysis’ doesn’t appear in the literature until 1835, but this is clearly what Fulhame documented. Although a few scientists before her had observed reactions accelerating in the presence of additional reagents, Fulhame was the first to generalise such an observation to a whole class of reactions, in this case the reductions of metals.

“She was also the first to hypothesise a mechanism in which water dissociated into its ionic form, facilitated the intermediate reaction steps, and was regenerated by the end of the metal reduction.”

Attempts have been made to give her the credit she deserves. In the 1998 book Women in Chemistry, Marelene and Geoffrey Rayner-Canham argue that Fulhame was “the first solo woman researcher of modern chemistry”.

Sadly we do not know where she died or where she was buried, but hopefully this column will help spark a re-evaluation of a fine Scottish scientific pioneer.