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 author. 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 angry. "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 University." 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.
Go to Gazette Homepage