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In late Victorian times, the parliament of British science was the annual gathering of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. In 1898, the president of that august body was the recently knighted chemist Sir William Crookes (1832–1919), famous for his work on thallium, cathode rays, and the radiometer. Other activities prior to 1898 included a study of rare earth elements, and the identification of helium on earth (it had first been observed on the sun). Crookes had started out as a skilful analyst who learnt his trade in the 1850s as assistant to the German chemist A(ugust) Wilhelm Hofmann (1818–1892) at the erstwhile Royal College of Chemistry in London. Crookes did not hold an academic post, nor did he possess formal qualifications in chemistry. Instead of pursuing academic studies in an ivory tower, his career was spent as a publicist for science, and himself, mainly as editor and proprietor of the journal Chemical News , and as discoverer, inventor, consultant, and expert witness in cases of litigation concerning scientific matters. Crookes during 1871–1880, among his other business activities, had been a director of the Native Guano Company, founded in London in 1869 to convert “unspeakable” (human) waste into fertilizer. He had, in addition, dabbled in theosophy, but seems to have been mainly forgiven this and other foibles. In any case, spiritualism and occult science were fashionable if dubious topics around 1900.
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- Introduction: Food or Famine
Anthony S. Travis
- Chapter 1