Accum, Friedrich Christian

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Accum, Friedrich Christian

(b. Bückeburg, Germany, 29 March 1769; d. Berlin, Germany, 28 June 1838)

applied chemistry.

The son of a converted Jew, Herz Marcus, and a Huguenot, Judith La Motte, Accum was the sixth of seven children and the youngest of the three who lived to maturity. A small family soap-boiling business begun with the aid of his mother’s dowry continued to provide income after his father’s death in 1772; Friedrich was thus able to follow the usual classical curriculum at the more than usually respected local Gymnasium. It was, however, an interest in chemistry that led to his move to England in 1793, as assistant in the Hannover and London firm of Brande, apothecaries to George III. He married Mary Simpson of London in 1798 and had eight children, of whom one son and one daughter lived to adulthood.

Accum was early indebted to the patronage of Anthony Carlisle and the friendship of William Nicholson. About 1800 he established his own laboratory; he was also “assistant chemical operator” to Humphry Davy, resigning in September 1803. In 1802 he began public lecturing, and the steady stream of laboratory pupils included the Americans Benjamin Silliman (in 1805) and William Peck. Orders for chemical apparatus for Harvard, Yale, even Pondicherry, India, were a natural consequence.

In December 1820 the scandal that followed Accum’s arrest for mutilating books in the Royal Institution library led to his flight to Germany. Some of the proceeds from his technological and publishing successes went with him, and he was soon reestablished in Berlin, with two technical professorships. In England he was a subscriber to the Royal Institution, a member of the Royal Irish Academy and the Linnean Society, and a corresponding member of the Royal Academy of Sciences in Berlin. The last connection continued after his move to Germany.

The value of Accum’s work lies in the way he saw and exploited the technological possibilities of the rapidly advancing science of chemistry. His activities as lecturer. author, laboratory instructor, merchant, consultant, and technical adviser epitomize the opportunities that the industrial revolution opened to the emerging class of professional chemists. His pioneer work on gas-lighting and food adulteration was of fundamental importance.

Accum was intimately concerned with the application of F. A. Winsor’s 1804 patent of a gas-lighting process. He undertook the experimental work necessary to overcome the complaints of Winsor’s rival William Murdoch and the scruples of Parliamentary committees. As a result his name appeared as “practical chemist” on the 1812 list of the first Corporation of London’s highly successful Gas-Light and Coke Company. Profiting from his experience. Accum advised other fledgling gas companies and wrote the 1815 treatise that became the classic text of gas technology. Equal fame, although not success, surrounded his work on food adulteration. He was long aware of this problem and his deliberately sensational 1820 work (motto “There is death in the pot”) did much to awaken that public concern that eventually resulted in the Adulteration Act of 1860. Not surprisingly, Accum’s outspoken attacks, and his naming of offending individuals, antagonized powerful interests. This antagonism may well explain the harsh line the Royal Institution took toward his own shortcomings, despite the pleadings of his former patron Carlisle.


I. Original Works. In addition to many articles Accum wrote at least fifteen books, from System of Theoretical and Practical Chemistry, 2 vols. (London, 1803), to Physische und chemische Beschaffenheit der Baumaterialien, 2 vols. (Berlin, 1826). The two most important are his Practical Treatise on Gas Light: Exhibiting a Summary Description of the Apparatus and Machinery (London, 1815; 4th ed., 1817), which was trans, into French, German, and Italian, and the Treatise on the Adulterations of Food, and Culinary Poisons (London. 1820; 2nd ed., 1820).

II. Secondary Literature. C. A. Browne, “The Life and Chemical Services of Fredrick Accum.” in Journal of Chemical Education. 2 (1925), 829–851, 1008–1034, 1140–1149, and “Recently Acquired Information Concering Fredrick Accum,” in Chymia. 1 (1948). 1–9, contain detailed data on Accum’s life and work, surviving MSS, and chemical samples: R. J. Cole’s largely derivative “Friedrich Accum. A Biographical Study.” in Annals of Science, 7 (1951), 128–143, contains some information on eds. and trans. of Accum’s books.

Arnold Thackray