Elizabeth Fulhame, the 18th century chemistry pioneer who faded from history

Elizabeth Fulhame

Source: © Swindler & Swindler @ Folio Art

More than 200 years ago, a female chemist introduced the concept of catalysis and made early steps towards photography. Rachel Brazil develops her story

The discovery of catalysis is usually attributed to Swedish chemist Jons Jakob Berzelius in 1835. Although he named the phenomenon, the underlying principle was first described 40 years earlier by Elizabeth Fulhame, a Scottish chemist who remains largely uncelebrated for her remarkable chemical experimentation and theorizing. We know little about Fulhame except that she lived in Edinburgh and was married to an Irish doctor, Thomas Fulhame, who was himself studying chemistry at the University of Edinburgh under the tutelage of Joseph Black. 

In 1780 Fulhame became interested in studying dyeing processes with the view to chemically infusing cloth with gold, silver and other metals. She experimented with dipping silk threads into metal salts, then exposing them to light. Her work may have remained a private pursuit but in 1793 she met chemist Joseph Priestley in London who encouraged her to publish her findings.