University of Cambridge > Talks.cam > Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science > Material substitutions in historical perspective: the cases of the British Substitutes and Vegetable Drugs Committees during World War Two

Material substitutions in historical perspective: the cases of the British Substitutes and Vegetable Drugs Committees during World War Two

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In this talk, I discuss two British government committees which were tasked during World War Two with the solution of finding substitutes for materials which had been made scarce by the war: the Substitutes Committee of the Ministry of Supply, and the Vegetable Drugs Committee of the Ministry of Health. I argue that these bodies cast a suggestive light on problems of 20th-century chemical governance in Britain, and the long history of attempts at material substitution by scientific means. The eminent industrialists and academic chemists who made up the Substitutes Committee ended up fighting a war chiefly of quotidian materials, trying to solve problems of degreasing wool, seeking replacements for leather, and worrying over the wide introduction of plastics. At the same time, their committee was tightly integrated into both government and private sector mechanisms of production and supply, and they boasted of being able to coordinate otherwise unrelated substitution efforts. They also speculated on a number of possible novel uses for colonial surpluses. The Vegetable Drugs Committee, meanwhile, was a remarkably diffuse entity which was torn between trying to provide support for voluntary collection of wild British plants, and ambitious schemes for complete self-sufficiency in drug production throughout the British Empire.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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