Undergraduate Course

Department of Chemistry University of Oxford

What does a Part II in history of science entail, and why do it?

Chemists have long believed history could offer important insights into the nature of chemical knowledge and the skills chemists require – whether they are engaged in cutting edge research, manufacture, teaching, medicine, pharmacy, or any of the numerous sciences related to chemistry. That’s why this option exists. If you envisage a future beyond research or work as a professional chemist – for example, in science communication, journalism, research administration, patent law, or teaching – it might be just what you are looking for.

This option does not require you to have taken the Supplementary Subject in History and Philosophy of Science in your second year. Some excellent theses have been written by candidates with no significant background in history or history of science. It does, however, require an interest in making an original contribution to our understanding of past science, and a commitment to learning and using historians’ methods, sources, and analytical tools.

Historical research is not easy, and you should not select this option lightly. It is possible to gain exceptionally high marks for a historical thesis but a successful historical project will require just as much work as any other Part II. Because doing history depends on a distinct skill set, student outcomes for the history of science option are not necessarily correlated with previous examination performance – for better, and for worse.

The Part II in history of science is a 38 week project, at the end of which you must submit a thesis based on original historical research. These projects are normally supervised by a historian. In fact, many historians of chemistry – in Oxford and elsewhere – are also trained chemists. Because this project forms part of a chemistry degree, Part II projects are required to have a strong chemical content. Many students therefore select topics in the modern period (roughly from 1750 to the recent past) where knowledge of present-day science can be used to greatest effect. If you are interested in an earlier period, please explore your ideas with a potential supervisor as early as possible.

Preliminary discussion

It is vital to discuss your plans with a potential history of science supervisor as early as possible. A preliminary meeting with Dr Catherine Jackson, an historian of chemistry in the University of Oxford History Faculty (https://www.history.ox.ac.uk/people/dr-catherine-m-jackson), has been arranged for candidates interested in writing Part II theses in 2020-21. This meeting will be held on Tuesday, 19th November 2019 at 4 pm in the CTL Seminar Room.

If you are interested but cannot attend this meeting, email Dr Jackson:


Catherine Jackson is Associate Professor of History of Science and serves on the advisory committee for the Oxford Centre for the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology (OCHSMT). A PhD chemist and historian of modern chemistry, Dr Jackson has published extensively on the history of nineteenth-century organic chemistry including original studies of Justus Liebig, August Hofmann, Albert Ladenburg, and Emil Fischer; on the history of chemical training and the laboratory: and on chemistry’s material culture, especially the rise of scientific glassblowing. Dr Jackson’s teaching experience spans the modern period, with a focus on chemistry and its connected sciences, including pharmacy and pharmacology.  She is committed to the relevance of history to science students, reflected in her developing involvement with the history of science option in Part II of the Chemistry degree programme.

Choosing a topic

Think about what interests you, and be realistic about the skills you already possess, as well as those you’d like to develop. Foreign language skills will be essential if you are interested in the historical development of chemistry beyond the Anglophone world. On the other hand, using a language for historical research can be an excellent way to advance your linguistic ability. Similarly, your scientific and chemical interests – whether in earth sciences, pharmacology, theoretical chemistry or agriculture, or something else entirely – may guide your choice of topic.

You need not restrict yourself to the history of chemical ideas, concepts and theories. Perhaps you are interested in the history of a process, reaction, or instrument, the technological strategy of a company, or the development of an industrial sector. These are all appropriate topic areas – though, as discussed below, the formulation of a suitable, researchable project in any given area may take time and effort, and is something you should discuss with a prospective supervisor.

The key point is that students tend to do best when they are genuinely enthused by their research topic, and personally eager to discover and share answers to the historical questions at the heart of their project.

Here are some examples of Part II theses submitted by previous students, chosen to give you some indication of the range of possibilities:

  • The diaries of John Ward and the chemical community of Oxford, 1650-80
  • Chemistry for gentlemen: Charles Daubeny and the role of a chemical education at Oxford 1800-1867
  • The development of Forensic Chemistry, 1750-1900
  • Stuck in the Past: a chemical history of adhesives
  • A history of steroid research: with particular emphasis on work conducted in Oxford 1932-1955
  • The chemistry and structure of ferrous metals, in relation to the study of early swords and cutlery
  • The chrysotype: an investigation into a nineteenth-century photographic process
  • A sociable addiction: tea, coffee, cocoa and the chemistry of xanthines
  • Beyond Minamata: some aspects of mercury pollution in aquatic environments of the UK 1950-1980
  • N. V. Sidgwick and his role in the development of the electronic theory of valency
  • The development of chemistry based explosives with regard to their commercial and military applications, c. 1840-1900
  • The chemistry of British jewellery production between 1700 and 1950.
  • Metals and chemical compounds used in orthodontic and other surgical repair procedures.
  • A history of alkaloid drug abuse, with special reference to Britain in the period 1800­1980

A selection of theses is available for consultation in the History Faculty Library (at the Bodleian Radcliffe Camera) and catalogued here:

http://solo.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/primo-explore/search?query=any,contains,Oxford%20University%20Chemistry%20Part%20II:%20undergradua te%20thesis&tab=local&search_scope=LSCOP_ALL&sortby=rank&vid=SOLO&facet=library,include,H FLBL&lang=en_US&offset=0  

How does historical research work?

Every piece of original historical research requires four main components (in bold italics). First, you need to know what has already been written about your chosen topic. Somewhat

confusingly, this is called the secondary literature, and it will enable you to identify one or two historical questions that have not yet been answered, or that you consider previous scholars have answered inadequately, unhelpfully, or even incorrectly. Ideally, these questions should not only interest you but also be relevant to larger current debates – for example, the relationship between experiment and theory in chemical practice, past chemists’ engagement with environmental issues, or the historical role of minorities in science.

Identifying sound historical questions matters. These are the underlying drivers of your project, and it is vital that they are researchable, i.e. that sufficient (and not too many!) relevant, accessible historical sources (including material objects and visual images, as well as manuscripts and printed documents) exist. In the language of history, these are called primary sources. They may be manuscript or printed and you may – where necessary and appropriate – use transcribed, translated, or digitized sources.

You do not have to be the first person to work with a particular set of primary sources but your interpretation of those sources must be unique to you, i.e. not derived from the work of other scholars (which could be plagiarism). Accomplishing this requires you to have read and understood the relevant secondary literature, as discussed above. Acquiring and demonstrating familiarity with existing scholarship is an essential prerequisite to advancing an original historical argument or thesis, and both components are vital to a sound thesis.

Historical scholarship does not consist of merely presenting information about the past, it requires the historian (that’s you!) to offer an interpretation that contributes to our understanding. That’s why you should avoid topics – for example, the lives of famous scientists – where numerous good studies already exist, making it hard to say something new. Do not make your focus so restricted that your conclusions have little relevance beyond themselves. Nor should it be so broad that your project becomes unmanageable. This is an area where you should seek advice from your proposed supervisor, before defining your project, and during its execution.

Studying primary sources will constitute a significant proportion of your work, and it is important that you can remain motivated during long, solitary hours in a library or archive. Projects can occasionally be executed using mainly online sources but most require physical access. One consequence of this is that you are likely to find it much easier to complete projects for which the primary sources are in Oxford.

The history of chemistry in Oxford is a fascinating field with excellent local sources that remain significantly under-exploited. The holdings of printed sources in the Bodleian and Radcliffe Science Libraries are among the richest in the world. In addition to college libraries, the libraries of the History Faculty on George Street and the Oxford Centre for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine at 45-47 Banbury Road contain significant relevant material. Equally, collections at the History of Science Museum on Broad Street offer the possibility of studying history of scientific instruments and their makers. All are focal points for the Oxford community of scholars, graduate students, and faculty interested in history of science, technology, and medicine, and they can provide you with suitable places to work, seek advice and support, and meet with others engaged in similar endeavours.

What makes a good Part II history of science thesis?

Historical evidence does not speak for itself. The historian’s job is not the mere exposition of sources or the discovery of truths about the past. While you are researching, you should also be thinking about how to shape your materials into an argument, and how to structure and present your written thesis.

A good historical thesis presents an argument that is well constructed, and evidence based. This requires you to demonstrate a thorough grasp of relevant secondary literature and effectively to deploy primary and secondary sources to support your argument. You should outline your approach to the topic, the questions that concern you, and the conclusions you have reached. It is important that you identify what is new and original to you, as well as acknowledging (by appropriate citation) the work of others. Writing a good thesis depends on you understanding both the science content and the historical source material.

Good historical writing does not mean using long words and complicated sentences. It does require logical analysis, clear and consistent thinking, and direct presentation. Careless, unclear, and ambiguous writing, misspelling, misquotation, and inappropriate use of sources will all detract from your work. Structure is often helpful: most theses are divided into chapters, each chapter engaging with a different section of the argument, and the whole culminating in a final chapter or section that brings your argument to a persuasive conclusion.

A good historian, like a good scientist, is constantly evaluating the significance of their sources, and refining their interpretation in light of what they have learned. Historians, like scientists, have a research plan. This is not set in stone and will almost certainly be modified as you learn more about your chosen topic. It is nevertheless important that you have one. Gathering source material can easily become an end in itself, preventing you from spending sufficient time analyzing what you have already found and how it relates to the secondary literature. You should start planning for your thesis as early as possible, revising as necessary throughout the research process and always making sure you leave adequate time for writing and thinking.

A word of caution: It is important not to waste your time, or get bogged down in any phase of research and writing. Your examiners will expect to see evidence of substantial work. If you waste a term in pursuit of unrealistic research goals, for example because you have not thought through the practicalities before starting term, or cannot get down to serious work, you will have huge, probably insurmountable, difficulty producing an adequate thesis before the deadline. An intellectually limited submission, based on inadequate reading and analysis – for example, one based mainly on reviews and the secondary literature – is unlikely to attract good marks.

Procedures, Deadlines, and Assessment

What follows is provided for guidance only and does not supersede or replace the formal Part II requirements as set out on the Chemistry department website.


You will need to send a detailed proposal, written by your intended supervisor, to the Faculty office by the Friday of Week 3 of Hilary term for consideration by the Chemistry Teaching Committee (CTC). Because this is an unusual option, your reasons for wanting to pursue it must be robust and positive. The CTC will want to be convinced that:

  • you have chosen an appropriate topic
  • you are aware of the most relevant secondary literature
  • you have formulated some preliminary historical questions,
  • your project has sufficient chemistry/science content,
  • adequate primary material is available and that you know how to access it,
  • your supervisor is satisfied the proposed project is viable.

Supervision and Expectations for Independent Working

You should expect regular meetings with your supervisor, typically once a fortnight during term. Bear in mind that your supervisor’s advice is likely to be limited to guidance on project definition and structure, discussing your plans and progress, giving feedback on drafts, and suggesting strategies and directions you may not have considered. Ultimately, this is your project and you will need to demonstrate high levels of commitment, motivation, organisation and independent thought in order to succeed.

You will also have a supervisor from inside the Chemistry department. They can help you ensure you understand the way in which we understand the science you are researching now, as well as the how it was understood in the period you are investigating. Demonstrating good technical knowledge, present day as well as historical, is a necessary component of your thesis. You should consult your Chemistry supervisor in the event of any problems.

Final Submission

Your final project must be submitted by noon on the Friday of 7th week of the Trinity term. Late submissions will be penalized.

Remember, writing a good thesis will certainly require more than one draft, of parts if not of the whole. It is likely to require more intellectual effort and take longer than anticipated. You should also allow sufficient time to make the final typed and printed version presentable. Do not allow hasty and careless final production to undermine a strong and interesting thesis.

Assessment Guidelines

History theses are assessed on the following criteria:

Engagement with secondary literature:

  • range and relevance of topic;
  • identification and definition of historical questions;
  • location in historiographical context;
  • comprehension of and interaction with current historical debate.


  • coherence, relevance, and originality of argument;
  • analytical clarity and power;
  • intellectual penetration and sophistication of conceptualization;
  • clarity and persuasiveness of conclusion.


  • appropriate use of primary and secondary material;
  • sophistication of methods of research;
  • range of material deployed;
  • relevance of information deployed;
  • depth, precision, detail and accuracy of evidence cited.

Organization and Presentation:

  • clarity and coherence of structure;
  • clarity, fluency and elegance of prose;
  • correctness of grammar, spelling, and punctuation;
  • correctness and consistency of scholarly apparatus.

Grading Scheme

Class I (70-100%) Presents a sound and persuasive argument in relation to clearly defined historical questions of broad relevance. Is based on extensive primary and secondary source research. Displays independent thought, excellent understanding of technical and historical material, a good grasp of the issues at stake, and is clearly and coherently presented. A thesis at the top end of the class is of sufficient interest and originality to warrant submission to a professional historical journal.

Class II.i (60-70%) Identifies clear historical questions and presents an argument based on adequate primary and secondary source research. Displays some independent thinking, generally sound understanding of technical and historical material, and is clearly and coherently presented. A thesis at the top end of the class will offer a lucid analysis that is situated in both historical and scientific context. Towards the lower end of the class, theses may, while competently executed, be based on limited research, or reflect lesser depth of understanding or clarity of reasoning. Strength in some areas may compensate for weaknesses elsewhere.

Class II.ii (50-60%) Outlines historical questions of restricted scope and relevance and offers an argument based on limited primary and secondary source research. Displays little independent thinking, reveals gaps in technical and historical understanding, and is generally competently presented. Strength in some areas may compensate for weaknesses elsewhere.

Class III (40-50%) Suggests historical questions of restricted scope and relevance and gestures towards an argument. Evidence of extremely limited research and application. No evidence of independent thinking, generally poor technical and historical understanding, major weaknesses in presentation such as irrelevance, incoherence, systematic errors, misquotation and poor organization.