Why is Accum Important?
Fredrick Accum is representative of a chemist who is largely forgotten these days but nevertheless contributed to important changes in society, in his case by raising awareness of food safety. In Accum's time it was quite common to add all sorts materials to food to make it cheaper to produce and yet still pass it off as a quality product. Accum and fellow campaigners fought against this food fraud and paved the way for the 1875 Sale of Food and Drugs Act. However, this article is about more than food safety and includes his work on the production of coal gas and his role as an educationalist.
Many of Accum's books are held by the RSC's Library & Information Centre.
Accum's Early Life
Carl Friedrich Accum was born in Bückeburg, a small German town some 20 miles south-west of Hanover on 29 March 1769. His father was a Jew and his mother a Huguenot, both of whose families had suffered persecution in the 18th century. At the time of their marriage, they were moderately prosperous and Accum senior had set himself up as a merchant and soap-boiler. Of their seven children, only three attained maturity and the father himself died soon after the birth of his last child.
The young Fredrick, as he later called himself, appeared to have shown an early interest in chemistry through watching his older brother in the family soap business. After leaving the local gymnasium, Accum was apprenticed as an apothecary and eventually associated with the Brande family. Some of these were apothecaries to George III and had chemical establishments in both Hanover and London. At the age of 24, Accum left Germany and moved to London, where William Brande had a laboratory in Arlington Street, just a few hundred yards away from the Royal Institution and St James's Palace. Here he continued to study in his leisure hours and attended lectures in the anatomical lecture theatre in Windmill Street.
William Brande's court connections brought many influential persons to the Arlington Street establishment, amongst whom was William Nicholson. Nicholson was extremely active not only as a chemist of some considerable ability but also as a voracious reader of current journals and text books. From these sources, he began a compilation in 1797 which came to be known as Nicholson's Journal, though its proper title was a Journal of Natural Philosophy and the Arts.
Accum's knowledge of languages was useful in the translation of foreign works and Nicholson, in return, employed his influence to further Accum's career. Almost from the launch of the Journal, Accum contributed articles in his own right and in June 1798 began a series of articles on the adulteration of drugs and medical preparations. Fellow contributors included all the illustrious names of the period, including the reclusive Henry Cavendish, John Dalton, Humphry Davy, Proust and Count Rumford (Benjamin Thomson).
Contact and Further Information
Library & Information Centre
Royal Society of Chemistry, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BA
Tel: +44 (0) 20 7440 3373
Fax: +44 (0) 20 7440 3393