The Ring, part 1

The Ring

1862. August Kekule, struggling to write his textbook on chemistry, dozed off in front of the fire. “The atoms fluttered before my eyes … everything in motion, twisting and turning like snakes. But look, what was that? One of the snakes had seized its own tail, and the figure whirled mockingly before my eyes. As if by a flash of lightning I awoke …”[i]

Kekule had seen the ring-shape of benzene. The substance had long baffled chemists. It remained stable, combining with few other substances, and when it did react it behaved unlike anything else. Kekule’s vision, one chemist wrote later, made sense of existing events and threw a flood of light into the future.[ii]


Who would not desire such a vision? To see, to understand, and know precisely how to act to bring the bloody child safely through the gap.

Kekule did not publish his discovery for some years. In the intervening time, at age thirty-two, he married Stephanie, the nineteen-year-old daughter of the director of the gas factory in Ghent, Belgium, where he taught. Chemists needed a regular supply of gas, so we can presume that this way Stephanie and August got to know each other.[iii]

One of his students described him: “He had a casual, merry, even boisterous personality. He told stories in the most captivating way … The air-bath for reactions in sealed tubes was located on a platform in the lab. Whereas we all stood on a stool or chair to reach the thermometer column in order to record temperatures, the boss scorned such boring methods, performing an acrobatic leap from his lab bench to the platform …”[iv]

A year after they married, Stephanie gave birth to a son. She died ten days later of puerperal fever, probably from the dirty hands of her doctor. She suffered. The infection invades uterus and abdomen, causing the belly to swell like a monstrous pregnancy and become so painful that it seemed “to excite the most unspeakable terror,” wrote one doctor. “I think I have seen women who appeared to be awe-struck with the dreadful force of their distress.”[v]

Some physicians tried to point out that many fewer women died when doctors washed their hands before delivering babies — especially if the doctor had just been touching a cadaver. The medical establishment scoffed at the idea that doctors could contaminate women. The same physician who had seen the faces of so many suffering protested that doctors could not carry the infection because doctors were gentlemen, and “a gentleman’s hands are clean.”[vi]


Stephanie here falls into silence—the gap—nothing.

[i] Image and Reality, 194.

August, Kekule speech Berlin City Hall, 1890, in“August Kekule and the Birth of the Structural Theory of Organic Chemistry in 1858,” trans. O. Theodor Benfey Journal of Chemical Education, Vol. 35, No. 1, January 1958.

[ii] Edvard Hjelt, quoted in Alan J. Rocke, Image and Reality: Kekule, Kopp, and the Scientific Imagination (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010)

[iii] Image and Reality, 193

[iv] Image and Reality, 203-204

[v] Irvine Loudon, Death in Childbirth: An International Study of Maternal Care and Maternal Mortality 1800-1950, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), 56

Charles Meigs, Females and Their Diseases (Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, 1848), 596.

[vi] Dorothy Wertz and Richard Wertz, Lying In: A History of Childbirth in America, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989)

Charles Meigs, On the Nature, Signs and Treatment of Childbed Fever (Philadelphia: Blanchard and Lea, 1854), 104.

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