Johns Hopkins Gazette: August 22, 1994

Smithsonian Revisits Remsen, Fahlberg Debate
By Christine A. Rowett

It is somewhat ironic that Ira Remsen's image and thoughts
are the first attraction of the "Science in American Life"
exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American
History in Washington, D.C.
    Dr. Remsen, the noted scientist who helped establish
Hopkins as a leading graduate science teaching institute in
the United States and later served as president of the
university, never sought fame or fortune for his
contributions to science. In fact, he was said to have
contempt for the commercialism of discovery.
    But now, every day thousands pass by the life-sized
likeness of Dr. Remsen sitting in a full-sized reproduction
of his Hopkins lab, part of the original chemistry building
in downtown Baltimore.
    The display, titled "A Model Laboratory," is part of the
Smithsonian's permanent exhibit; it will remain at least 15
years. The featured lab is actually based on part of an 1883
addition to Remsen's original chemical laboratory at Hopkins.
    To recreate the lab, curators examined old photographs
and used materials from a 1964 exhibit titled "Chemistry
Laboratory of About 1890." The idea to include a remodeled
Remsen lab in the project dates back to the early planning
stages more than six years ago. History of Science, Medicine
and Technology professor Robert Kargon was one of several
original consultants on the project.
    Dr. Remsen's work and the establishment of the
research-based doctoral program at Hopkins were considered
significant contributions to professional science in the
United States.
    Contributions for the lab exhibit came from government
agencies, private donors and universities. The Eisenhower
Library's Special Collections Department at Hopkins provided
several photos and donated four articles that actually
belonged to Dr. Remsen: a small furnace, two thermometers and
a balance.
    The exhibit also explores the emergence of the pure
science vs. applied research debate for the first time in the
history of American science.
    In 1879 Dr. Remsen and Constantin Fahlberg, a visiting
research fellow, accidentally discovered an artificial
sweetener while working with a derivative of coal tar. The
pair published their findings in the February 1880 issue of
the American Chemical Journal, with Dr. Remsen as lead
    Four years later, when they were no longer working
together, Dr. Fahlberg patented the discovery, which he
called saccharin, for the Latin word saccharum, or sugar. Dr.
Remsen was not mentioned on the patent. Dr. Fahlberg got
rich, and Dr. Remsen, one of the first of five faculty
members named university professors at Hopkins in 1875, got
    "It makes my blood boil to see the lies of that
scoundrel Fahlberg constantly, constantly in print, and to
see further, that they are generally believed," the Remsen
figure "says" in a recorded message.  "Pardon my outburst. I
am Dr. Ira Remsen, and I am a professor at the Johns Hopkins
    The Fahlberg mannequin quickly defends the Russian-born
scientist it portrays.
    "[Dr. Remsen] didn't have anything to do with the
manufacturing process," he says, in a thick Russian accent.
"Besides, he had such disdain for industry. Among my American
colleagues, Dr. Remsen is notorious for this view."
    The Remsen character, who maintains no interest in the
profits of saccharin but wants credit for the discovery, sits
in the lab with his arms outstretched. As mannequins, both
figures are hopelessly stiff and decidedly un-lifelike.
    "It's asking a lot of the visitors to suspend disbelief
and listen to these voices," admitted section curator Linda
Tucker, a Hopkins graduate student in the History of Science,
Medicine and Technology Department. "But the message is
simple, and visitors seem to get it."
    Reviews for the exhibit, which opened last April, have
been mixed.
    "Some scientists may want to see a more technical show,"
Tucker said. "Non-scientists may think it is too technical."
    Other highlights of the "Science in American Life"
exhibit include "Mobilizing Science for War, 1940-1960," and
"Science in the Public Eye, 1970-present."
    If Dr. Remsen were alive today, he might be disappointed
to discover that he is remembered more for the saccharin
controversy than for his research and commitment to training
future scientists.
    "The chief responsibility of this university, or any
institution of learning, is to promote the study of pure
science, to develop a scientific habit of mind in students
and to train them to become investigators," Dr. Remsen's
likeness says. "The future of science in our country will
rest on our allegiance to these ideals."
    Admission to the Smithsonian is free. Summer hours--in
effect until Labor Day--are 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. daily.
Regular hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily.

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