18 February 2022 — 12:00 noon — online

Alyssa Peterson (UT)

“Vapors: From Environmental to Chemical in the Long Eighteenth Century”

At the end of the seventeenth century, society knew bad air could cause illness. Such air had many names: miasma, effluvia, airs, and vapors. As science and chemistry advanced throughout the eighteenth century, numerous people wrote about vapors, each with their definition of the term. Chemists defined and used vapor in their writings differently from physicians, who understood it differently than geologists. As the eighteenth century progressed, these different groups reworked their understanding of vapor and what they were. As chemistry came into its own, vapors were no longer composed of rotting vegetables or sea air; they slowly became composed of acids, alkalis, and specific elements. However, other groups incorporated the chemical definitions differently and often did not take the ideas from chemistry wholesale. This paper discusses the movement away from environmental explanations in early modern natural history and medicine by examining how vapors were understood as chemistry began to infiltrate other sciences during the long eighteenth century. By its end, the scientific community no longer thought of vapors as a natural occurrence beyond human control; instead, vapors were a makeup of chemical components, which could be studied, identified, and controlled.


Alyssa Peterson is a fourth-year PhD student in the UT History Department who focuses on Atlantic and Environmental history as well as the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine. She studies the Atlantic world from roughly 1600 to 1800 and the circulation and transformation of information throughout the greater Atlantic.


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