A History of Science, IV - Modern Development of the Chemical and Biological Sciences
by Henry Smith Williams
AS regards chronology, the epoch covered in the present volume is identical with that viewed in the preceding one. But now as regards subject matter we pass on to those diverse phases of the physical world which are the field of the chemist, and to those yet more intricate processes which have to do with living organisms. So radical are the changes here that we seem to be entering new worlds; and yet, here as before, there are intimations of the new discoveries away back in the Greek days. The solution of the problem of respiration will remind us that Anaxagoras half guessed the secret; and in those diversified studies which tell us of the Daltonian atom in its wonderful transmutations, we shall be reminded again of the Clazomenian philosopher and his successor Democritus.
Yet we should press the analogy much too far were we to intimate that the Greek of the elder day or any thinker of a more recent period had penetrated, even in the vaguest way, all of the mysteries that the nineteenth century has revealed in the fields of chemistry and biology. At the very most the insight of those great Greeks and of the wonderful seventeenth-century philosophers who so often seemed on the verge of our later discoveries did no more than vaguely anticipate their successors of this later century. To gain an accurate, really specific knowledge of the properties of elementary bodies was reserved for the chemists of a recent epoch. The vague Greek questionings as to organic evolution were world-wide from the precise inductions of a Darwin. If the mediaeval Arabian endeavored to dull the knife of the surgeon with the use of drugs, his results hardly merit to be termed even an anticipation of modern anaesthesia. And when we speak of preventive medicine—of bacteriology in all its phases—we have to do with a marvellous field of which no previous generation of men had even the slightest inkling.
All in all, then, those that lie before us are perhaps the most wonderful and the most fascinating of all the fields of science. As the chapters of the preceding book carried us out into a macrocosm of inconceivable magnitude, our present studies are to reveal a microcosm of equally inconceivable smallness. As the studies of the physicist attempted to reveal the very nature of matter and of energy, we have now to seek the solution of the yet more inscrutable problems of life and of mind.