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Subject Guide: Chemistry: Archives and Special Collections

A guide to getting the most out of the Library and Collections resources for Chemistry

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Contact Archives and Special Collections

Palace Green Library

Palace Green
United Kingdom
Tel: +44 (0)191 334 2972



Archives and Special Collections

The historical development of Chemistry and its ancillary subjects as an academic discipline can be researched from the medieval period to the present day through the extensive resources of Archives and Special Collections.


Resources for some specific areas are highlighted below, but resources for many more specific topics can be discovered by searching for the appropriate topic (such as Chemistry, Alchemy, Archaeology, Metallurgy) in Discover and by restricting the search to ‘Durham Archives’ or by searching the printed catalogue by selecting Chemistry as a subject or keyword and restricting the search to ‘Durham libraries’ or ‘Durham archives’.

The history of Chemistry stretches back into ancient times as the science grew out of natural philosophy and of such technologies as the extraction of metal ores, the making of pottery and the extraction of chemicals from plants for food and medicines. Alchemy is regarded as the protoscience of Chemistry and Archaeology is a fruitful area for research into the uses made of Chemistry in earlier times.

Bamburgh Library

The book collections of members of the Sharp family that make up the library formerly housed at Bamburgh Castle, include one of the most important resources on early science held in Durham. There are 37 works by Robert Boyle, one of the founders of modern Chemistry, and the works of other founder members of the Royal Society along with their published Proceedings. From an earlier period, there is a copy of Georg Agricola’s De ortu & cauis subterraneorum (1558), illustrating the links with geology and mineralogy.

Printed Works on Chemistry

Other ASC collections are rich in books on Chemistry. The book collection (within the SC collection) of David Knight (1936-2018), Professor of the History and Philosophy of Science, contains a number of important early works on Chemistry, including A.L. Lavoisier’s Elements of chemistry (1799), the first modern Chemistry textbook, P.J. Macquer’s Dictionnaire de chymie (1778) and Sir Humphrey Davy’s Elements of agricultural chemistry (1813). Knight’s books were collected to fill in gaps in the early Chemistry literature of the University and include several works, some annotated, on the teaching of Chemistry. The Big Library of the Roman Catholic seminary at Ushaw College was set up to support teaching to a high academic standard across a wide curriculum. To find Chemistry books at Ushaw do a search on ‘Ushaw chemistry’ in Discover. The collection is particularly strong in 19th century scientific works, including Chemistry but there are also earlier works on natural philosophy,

Chemistry at the University

Chemistry was part of the syllabus right from the beginning of the university with J.F.W. Johnston (1796-1855), founder of the Johnston School in Durham, appointed in 1832 as a lecturer then reader in Chemistry and Mineralogy. His journals (Add.MS 1498) for 1838 and 1850-1851 give accounts of his work at Durham (performing organic analyses etc.) and lecturing in Sheffield and Manchester. He also wrote on the salt mines at Northwich, alkali works on Tyneside, and his work for the Agricultural Chemistry Association of Scotland, lecturing on agricultural science at cities on the east coast of America and Canada.

However, Chemistry did not initially thrive in Durham, and it was rather with the establishment of the College of Physical Science in Newcastle that the subject became established at the university with Algernon Freire-Marreco the first Professor of Chemistry there from 1871. Chemistry reappeared in Durham with the development of the Science Site and the appointment of Sir James Irvine Masson (1887-1962) as the first Professor Chemistry in Durham in 1924 (some material of his is Add.MS. 1381). His successor as professor and head of the now department of Chemistry in 1939 – Frederick Paneth – has left rather more material in Add.MS. 780 which illustrates his work, particularly on radio-chemistry; Add.MS. 1456 is an account of his work on autochromes, and his slides record his interest in amber specimens. There are also some 1930s certificates etc of a student of Paneth’s in the Hild Bede College archive and some notebooks of a 1950s Chemistry student in the Hatfield College archive. Also held are the extensive papers of Jack Gibby (1902-1989), a university Chemistry lecturer, though his papers reflect rather his Local History interests.

The wider development of the subject and department of Chemistry in the university is reflected in the university’s own archive, in central, faculty and departmental files, in the records of the meetings of its various committees from Senate and Council down, in the exam papers, pass lists and mark sheets for the subject, and in the university’s publications of such as the Gazette, Calendar, Journal, and Vice-Chancellor’s Reports, and newsletters and the like.

Other archive collections

The correspondence of M.P. Applebey for 1948-1950 (Add.MS. 1656) cover his professional life as a chemist at ICI in Billingham. A scrap book miscellany (1809-1827) compiled by John William Smith of Barnard Castle (Add.MS. 318) includes notes on scientific experiments. Other local collections of papers include references to mining and industry in Durham. Examples of these are the Baker Baker papers which include extensive and detailed records of the Boulby Alum works near Saltburn on the North Yorkshire coast (17th to 19th centuries), and coal and lead mining interests. The Cookson Family Papers illustrate some of the family’s wide-ranging industrial and business activities on Tyneside. The Church Commission archive of the Dean and Chapter’s estates includes land dealings with various chemical companies around South Shields in the later 19th century. Further afield, there is some photographic material of F. Stansfield who was a university Chemistry lecturer in Sudan and Nigeria in the 1950s to 1970s.

Pigment Analysis

Perhaps not obvious source for chemists, but the most extensive surviving medieval monastic library in this country, that of the cathedral, is being utilised by the Chemistry, and History, Departments at the university by using Raman spectroscopy to shed new light on this collection of medieval manuscripts, and especially the pigments used in the decorations and illuminations. Visit to find out more about this exciting and innovative project.

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