The chemistry of living things & Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science

It’s patently obvious that people are completely unalike to liquid mercury, ammonium chloride, and plumbum. Likewise, it stands to reason that frogs, bats, voles, minks, snakes, geckos, sparrows, drosophila, ferns, magnolias, buffalo grass, and juniper; bark, blood, bone, leaf, skin, resin, albumen, tannin, cornea, magenta, phloem, ambergris, and fur are made of different stuff than formaldehyde, bronze, sulphur, colcothar, antimony trichloride, diethyl ether, cinnabar, salt, spiritus nitroaereus, gunpowder, pepsin, shale, ferrous sulphate, saltpeter, rust, ore, coal, granite, magma, lime, silver, mercury, phosphorus, and oyl of vitriol. I mean: animals move with their own vital animus, and dust just gets blown around.

So, according to Scrimgeour & Moran: even though Wöhler synthesised an organic chemical just before the French Revolution, living things were still not generally accepted to be made of chemicals until around 1905 — and that was in scientific circles. As lauded a scientist as Louis Pasteur argued in the late 1800’s that a vital force (unique to living things) was necessary to the fermentation (by yeast) of sugar into alcohol. And remember that Mendeleev’s table wasn’t introduced until 1871.


Proving to the common soul that everything is made of chemicals required:

  • the atomic hypothesis
  • the periodic table (should I say the proton hypothesis?)
  • laboratory synthesis of organic matter
  • the mapping of metabolic pathways, and their reproduction in the lab by non-vital means;
  • and its acceptance was no doubt speeded by the fantastic successes of 20th-century physics (quantum mechanics, discovery of galaxies, Big Bang and inflationary cosmology) which reshaped philosophy and made way for today’s secular religion of Big Bang + Physics & Logic + Evolution = us.

—so it’s a very modern idea that we are chemical.

Remember, too, that in the 1800’s the Bible was still used to demonstrate objective truths about the universe. (I almost wrote “scientific truths”—but that just shows my 20th-century-ness: thinking that Science yields true facts and Religion functions in a separate magisterium.) And the Great Chain of Being was widely held to not so long before the time of Samuel Coleridge, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain, Henry David Thoreau, and Mary Baker Eddy.


Evolution and Relativity are glossed as the culture-bending scientific developments which shaped 20th-century minds. But that overlooks the advent of Bio Chemistry — takes for granted the previously disbelieved and extremely surprising fact that living things are made of chemicals.


Against that backdrop I find it very hard to critique Mary Baker Eddy’s logic in writing Science & Health, with a Key to the Scriptures and starting the niche religion of Christian Science.

She slipped on the ice in 1866 and continued working out her metaphysical views until her death in 1910. The first version of Science and Health was published in 1875 but the Authoritative version wasn’t finished until 1908. So the periodic table preceded her first draft by 4 years, and the chemical composition of mankind wasn’t definitively proven until 3 years before her death. (I’m counting Buchner’s 1907 Nobel as the date of “proof”.) If you were editing and improving a book about the most relevant spiritual and medical finding in centuries, not to mention giving lectures, and starting and administering a church for your new religion — do you think you would be keeping up on the curiosities turned up by the Royal Society? I wouldn’t.


What I’m saying is that it’s totally unreasonable to expect Mary Baker Eddy’s book to take a chemical, atomic, particulate view of mankind and its health — because that viewpoint was barely available during her lifetime. As an octogenarian, yes, she technically could have read up on all the latest science and trimmed Science & Health to a new prevailing wind. But at that point she had already given so many sermons on the question, Is the universe, including man, governed by atomic force?, that it would have taken an unusually flexible person to recant in the remaining year or two before her death.

In a sense, Christian Science looks the fool merely because it was invented historically just prior to the modern Age of Biochemistry. Maybe there is a grander dialectic to this bit of history, in that the same widespread fascination with Science which drove Boyle, Faraday, and Maxwell, impelled Mrs. Eddy to rationally decompose the healing miracles of Christ. Maybe the era’s Romantic hubris and Scientific hubris were the drivers of both innovations (as well as others like the advent of psychology).

On the other hand, if biochemistry hadn’t progressed; if germ theory, atomic theory, the possibility of vaccination, chemical metabolism and most of all DNA hadn’t been proven beyond a reasonable doubt, Christian Science would occupy a very different place in the public imagination. Medicine would probably be about as good as it was in MBE’s time, and the placebo effects of absolute conviction in both metaphysical perfection and the scientific efficacy of prayer would be a compelling sell.

About isomorphismes

Argonaut: someone engaged in a dangerous but potentially rewarding adventure.
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