Poem: 'In Conversation with Elizabeth Fulhame'

Science in meter and verse

Illustration of a woman in a long dress near various chemical beakers.

Edited by Dava Sobel

She has a map spread at her feet, a lit carpet of gold cities

and silver rivers, each tributary wire-drawn with the tip

of a squirrel’s tail. Everything is very damp.

It seems like a dream, even in the dream. Saucers of silk

line the sills like a grand banquet for clothes moths.

The round table (pocked with scorch marks) throngs

with china cups of phosphorus in ether, tin dissolved

in muriatic acid, white oxide of arsenic in—

She tongs sugar lumps, pours the pot. Rainbow bull’s-eyes

float in our cups like latte ferns. The ceiling drips.

On the reading stand, a well-thumbed book on phlogiston

is flapping its mildewed wings. The room is strewn

with glittering retorts, cylinders, phials. She wants to know

her name because, for so long, she’s been vanishing

by degrees. “The facts of me escape me,” she says.

She lifts the lantern of Dr. Nooth’s machine. Iron nails

and diluted sulfuric acid at glass bottom. In the middle,

a ghostly snip of lead-dipped silk dangles over water.

Spangled silver by spindrift, it’s the sail of an invisible craft.

There’s a puff of white smoke, a never-ending string

of silk swatches from her sleeve. A little goes a long way

and this show might just go until dawn. Now the clouds

are lifting, the wallpaper is rolling back in waves.

It’s less drawing room, more Marie Antoinette’s bedroom.

In the golden aquatic, our chairs, napkins and clothes blaze

ablaze with shiny, shiny. She says it always consumes her

with wonder, yet her wonder is never consumed.

I imagined in the beginning,

that a few experiments

would determine the problem

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 specter appear in the shape

of woman, the pangs which

they suffer are truly dismal

Combustible bodies, as

hydrogen, phosphorus,

sulfur, charcoal, light, &c.

are capable of reducing

the metals in the ordinary

temperature of the atmosphere

so that a thimble full

of water would be sufficient

to reduce any quantity of metal

for this little bark of mine

has weathered out full

many a storm

repeated times unnumbered

so bright and dazzling

as to distress the eye

Editor’s Note: In the 18th century chemist Elizabeth Fulhame described the processes that later became known as catalysis and photoreduction. Extracts in italics are from her 1794 work: “An Essay on Combustion with a View to a New Art of Dying and Painting, Wherein the Phlogistic and Antiphlogistic Hypotheses are Proved Erroneous.” This essay was reprinted in 1810 in Philadelphia. It’s not known where or when she was born. According to a note by Charles Watt, Fulhame “died in abject poverty in a mean apartment in the vicinity of Soho Square.”

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