Transcending the Margins: The discovery of osmosis and the ensuing controversy (1820s -1840s)
MetadataShow full item record
Today, osmosis is recognized as one of the most fundamental biological phenomena. This recognition dates back to the nineteenth century, when scientists began to attribute a fundamental role to it. Osmosis was of appreciable interest to chemists, physiologists and physicists alike, and it ignited an investigative enterprise that culminated in the first Nobel Prize in the history of chemistry. It is therefore remarkable that the history of osmosis has scarcely been investigated. The aim of this study is to partially fill this gap. I will investigate the history of osmosis from the perspective of discipline formation and will use the sociological theory of marginalization to explain Dutrochet’s role in this history. When the French physiologist Henri Dutrochet (1776-1847) discovered osmosis in 1826, his description of the phenomena evoked a controversy. People did not agree with Dutrochet’s explanations, and its close resemblance with other liquid phenomena like absorption and capillarity troubled its acceptation even more. This thesis attempts to elucidate how osmosis eventually evolved into the phenomenon that was widely accepted by the nineteenth-century scientific community. It will be shown that due to his marginal position, Dutrochet proved unable to propel osmosis to the center of attention. However, when in the 1840s a new generation of German physiologists arose who explicitly rejected the dominant teleomechanist paradigm, they found in osmosis an ideal candidate to put their reductionist ideals to work. The work of these physiologists would secure a lasting place for osmosis on the scientific map.