Undergraduate Course

Department of Chemistry University of Oxford

The history of science is a long-established and very active discipline in Oxford, and every year a few students opt to do a Part II in this area rather than a laboratory-based or theoretical project. Although projects in this area are historical, and will normally be supervised by a historian, they are required to have a strong chemical content. This means that most topics are oriented towards the modern period, where knowledge of present-day science can be used to greatest effect. However, if you are interested in an earlier period, please do not hesitate to explore your ideas with a potential supervisor; it is conceivable, though less likely, that a suitable subject can be found.

The choice of a subject

The range of topics for which supervisors are available is wide, and we can usually tailor a thesis to your interests and background. If you read a foreign language, for example, you may wish to develop your linguistic skill. Or you may have interests in the history of a process or on the technological strategy of a company or an industrial sector. A different possibility is a topic in the history of scientific instruments, for which the collections of the Museum of the History of Science may be relevant. The history of chemistry in Oxford is another field with good local sources that remain largely unexploited. To give you an idea of the subjects that might be chosen, the following Part II theses are typical examples:

  • The chemistry and structure of ferrous metals, in relation to the study of early swords and cutlery
  • The diaries of John Ward and the chemical community of Oxford, 1650-80
  • Chemistry during the French Revolution: Lavoisier and his pupils
  • Paints, pigments, and protective coatings: a scientific history of the manufacture and application of paints, 1800-1950
  • The chrysotype: an investigation into a nineteenth-century photographic process
  • The production of explosives and nitrogenous fertilizers in Germany during the first world war
  • Atmospheric ozone chemistry in the twentieth century: techniques of measurement and their relations to meteoric activity
  • N. V. Sidgwick and his role in the development of the electronic theory of valency
  • Aspects of the chemical work of Linus Pauling
  • The history of the production of titanium dioxide in the Tioxide Company.
  • Metals and chemical compounds used in orthodontic and other surgical repair procedures.
  • Medical chemistry: history of alkaloid drug and pharmacological chemistry.

A full list of theses available for consultation in the History Faculty library may be found here:


The choice of subject requires careful thought. It is unwise to choose a topic where there are already good books so that you cannot write anything original about it. And you should not choose a subject so restricted that your conclusions have little relevance beyond the immediate topic. Many of the best theses succeed by showing how detailed reassessment of a subject of manageable size can shed light on our understanding of the development of a scientific idea or method. You will be expected to research using relevant primary sources and to be familiar with the relevant secondary literature in the area. An important criterion therefore is to make sure that the primary material exists and will be available to you. This is an area where you should take advice from your proposed supervisor.

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. This is not an easy option, and your reasons for wanting to follow it must be robust and positive. The CTC will want to to be convinced

  • that you have thought carefully about the subject,
  • that there is sufficient chemistry / science content,
  • that you know what primary material is available and where to find it,
  • that your supervisor is satisfied that this would be a viable project.
Your own background

You should not worry about your background in History. An interest in the past and in trying your hand at book-based and document-based research are far more important than whether or not you took the Supplementary Subject in History and Philosophy of Science in your second year. Some excellent theses have been written by candidates with no significant previous background in history. A history project would be a possibility for someone who is not intending to be a professional chemist and wants to work on their writing skills


The facilities for research in the history of science at Oxford are excellent. The holdings of printed sources in the Bodleian and Radcliffe Science Libraries are among the richest in the world, and there is also material in the libraries of the Modern History Faculty, the Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine, the Museum of the History of Science and some college libraries.

There are over forty graduate students working in the history of science, medicine, and technology. The community is a friendly and lively one, and discussion groups and informal meetings supplement the programme of lectures and seminars. If your research has a medical dimension, the Wellcome Unit in Banbury Road will provide a natural working place and meeting point. For students in the history of science and technology, the Modern History Faculty building in Broad Street houses a seminar room and small specialist library. The History Faculty Library in Broad Street hosts a useful section devoted to the history of science and a common room to which our Part II chemists and biochemists have access.

Preliminary discussion

It is important to discuss your plans with someone in the history of science group as early as possible. A preliminary meeting for candidates interested in writing Part II theses in 2019-20 will be held on Thursday, 15th November at 4 pm in the Office of the Professor of the History of Science, History Faculty, George Street. Dr. Allan Chapman as well as colleagues interested in the history of chemistry will be in the room to talk to chemists currently in their third year from 4 pm. If you are interested, try to come along at that time: just ask Reception for directions to the room, or dial the Professor’s direct line on the interphone situated on the rear door to the History Faculty.

If you cannot attend this meeting, it may be possible to arrange an alternative time by writing to Prof. R. Iliffe (robert.iliffe@history.ox.ac.uk)

Professor R. Iliffe
Professor of the History of Science
History Faculty
The Old Boys’ High School
George Street
Oxford OX1 2RL
Telephone: [6]15036; Secretary, [2] 74600

Historical research

History projects are not like chemistry projects in the sense that you are much more on your own and have to be much more self-reliant. In a chemistry project you will typically be a member of a large group, in constant contact with other students and meeting your supervisor very frequently. In a history project you will spend a large amount of time researching on your own in libraries or elsewhere, you will not be surrounded by other students working in similar areas and although the chemistry department expects you to have regular meetings with your supervisor this may be once a fortnight, for example.

Furthermore your supervisor will be able to advise you, but this is likely to be limited to advice about the structure of the project, discussing your progress, and suggesting new directions that you may not have thought of. Ultimately this is your project and you need to be prepared to demonstrate a high level of commitment, motivation, organisation and independent thought.

You will also need to ensure that you have a good understanding of the way in which we understand the science you are researching now, as well as the way in which it was understood (or not) in the period you are investigating. You will have a second supervisor from inside the department, who will be able to help you with this, and whom you can consult in the event of any problems arising.

The thesis

It is important not to waste your time. This is a 38 week project and the examiners will expect to see evidence of a substantial amount of 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 if you cannot get down to serious work, you will have huge, probably insurmountable, problems in pulling together an adequate thesis in the remainder of the year. An intellectually empty submission, based on limited reading, for example based mainly on reviews and the secondary literature, is little more than an undergraduate essay and is not likely to attract good marks. It is possible to gain exceptionally high marks for a thesis, and your ability to do this is not necessarily correlated with your previous examination performance. But the converse is also true.

Good Theses

The hallmark of a good thesis is precisely that it should contain a thesis, a well constructed argument or set of arguments on the topic. Apart from showing a sound grasp of the secondary literature and an awareness of the problems of the topic, the writer deploys the evidence of the primary sources to support an argument. The text makes it clear how the writer has approached the topic, what conclusions have been reached and what is new. In addition you need to ensure that the underlying science is properly thought through and understood. A good thesis is well written and properly and consistently presented. Good presentation is usually combined with high quality of analysis and intellectual grip on the sources that form a key element in the thesis. Careless or unclear writing, misspelling and misquotation of sources indicate imprecision of observation and thought.

It is important to realize from the outset that a thesis is not merely a long tutorial essay. It is fuller in scope, and it must be based on primary sources. Theses may be based on unpublished materials, but this is not essential. Primary sources may be published and even translated from another language. The nature of the topic and the approach adopted will generally govern the kind of sources used. What is essential is that the author should use the primary sources – whether published or unpublished - intelligently and accurately. A thesis should therefore show a competent grasp of relevant sources both primary and secondary; and it will use primary sources not merely for illustrative purposes but as coherently organised evidence to support the author’s arguments.

However, historical evidence will not speak for itself. The ‘truth’ will not emerge through the simple piling up of research material. While you are doing the research, you should also be thinking about how you will shape the materials into an argument, and how you will present that argument in written form. Most theses are divided into chapters, each chapter engaging with a different section of the argument, and the whole culminating in a final section that brings the argument to a persuasive conclusion. A good historian, like a good scientist, is constantly testing, modifying and rejecting hypotheses about the significance of the material. Research, while sometimes frustrating, is intensely stimulating; collecting it can become an end in itself. But the historian who stops thinking during research has ceased to be an historian. Hence planning for the thesis should start as early as possible, and continue throughout the research process. Some of your plans may well need to be discarded until you have found the most feasible and convincing one. It is always best to assume that the thesis will take longer and require more intellectual engagement than anticipated: a good thesis will certainly require more than one draft of parts if not of the whole. And plenty of time should be allowed for getting the final typed version into presentable form. The deadline for the submission of the thesis is not flexible, and hasty and careless final production can undermine a strong and interesting thesis.

Assessment of theses in the History of Science

History theses are assessed on the following criteria:

  • Engagement:
    • identification and definition of a problem;
    •  location in historiographical context;
    • range of issues addressed;
    • depth and sophistication of comprehension and engagement with issues.
  • Argument:
    • coherence of argument and its relevance to the problem;
    • analytical clarity and power;
    • intellectual penetration and sophistication of conceptualization; originality of argument.
  •  Information:
    • use of primary 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 of apparatus and form of notes & bibliography.
First class

A proper thesis, i.e. a well constructed argument with clear evidence of independent thought, based on high quality primary material, a good grasp of the issues, with clear and coherent presentation. At the low end of this class theses will show a high degree of competence and engagement, and weaknesses in some areas may be compensated by outstanding performance in others. At the top end of the class the thesis will be outstanding and original and merit immediate publication.

Upper second class

A good 2.1 thesis must identify a clear problem, put it into historical and scientific context, and offer a lucid and analytical discussion based on accurate primary material, and a structured use of secondary texts. Presentation must be clear and coherent.

A low 2.1 thesis will be competent and must offer an argument in response to a clearly-stated problem based on evidence acquired in research; but they will do so with less range, depth, precision and perhaps clarity. Qualities of a higher order may compensate for some weaknesses.

Lower second class

A 2.2 thesis must show evidence of some solid competence in research and analysis. But it will be spoiled by failures such as: inadequate definition of the problem or lack of context, failure to offer a clear argument, narrowness in the range of issues addressed, lack of research and primary evidence or irrelevance in its deployment, or poor organization and presentation, including incorrect prose and inadequate understanding of the underlying science.

Third class

Theses will fall down on a number of criteria, but will exhibit some sign of the qualities required, such as the ability to define a problem, to deploy evidence found in research, or to offer some coherent analysis towards an argument. But such qualities will not be displayed at a high level or consistently, and will be marred by irrelevance, incoherence, error and poor organization and presentation. Very short theses which nevertheless have promise may fall into this band.


30-39 Theses will display some knowledge or understanding of some points, but will display almost none of the higher qualities described in the criteria, and will not be based on any meaningful research. They will be marred by high levels of factual error and irrelevance, generalization and lack of information, and poor organization and presentation; and they may be very brief.