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As William A. Cole put it, “Chemical literature of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries is filled with the drama of the birth of a new chemistry.” The collection Cole built over more than three decades was aimed at providing “material useful in tracing the development of chemistry during a time when it was changing from an ‘art’ to a ‘science’ and was assuming a form recognizable as ‘modern’ ” (from Cole’s introduction to his Chemical literature, 1700-1860). The University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Special Collections is fortunate to hold much of the Cole Collection, which complements the Duveen Collection.
William Cole, trained in chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, taught high-school chemistry in Los Angeles for many years. While in Los Angeles he began collecting chemistry books in earnest, and in the process also caught the bug of descriptive bibliography. John Neu, longtime bibliographer for history of science at Madison, has called attention to the research value of this collection so rich in multiple editions and manuscript materials, paying tribute to the “quiet enthusiasm and … patient determination that enabled Cole to assemble such an impressive array of books.”
The Cole Collection in the UW-Madison Libraries contains more than 1000 works on chemistry from the 17th through the 19th centuries. Some were acquired by Special Collections in 1977; more were received in 1998 and thereafter as gifts from William and Nora Cole.
Individual printed books are cataloged with call numbers beginning Cole Coll C. The Cole Collection also includes significant manuscript holdings — among others, a bound volume of notes on the chemistry lectures of Guillaume François Rouelle (Cole Coll MS 13), a three-volume set of notes on lectures on “chymistry” given by Joseph Black at the University of Edinburgh in 1771-1772 (Cole Coll MS 3), and letters addressed to Giovanni Fabbroni from Luigi Vincenzo Brugnatelli (Cole Coll MS 23). Special Collections also holds much of William Cole’s own correspondence about his collection.
Among the outstanding works in the Cole Collection is Carl Wilhelm Scheele’s Chemische Abhandlung von der Luft und dem Feuer (1777), one of the key texts of the so-called Chemical Revolution. The Cole Collection contains first and subsequent editions of titles by Scheele, Lavoisier, and Priestley, among other works from this important period in the history of chemistry.
The generosity of William and Nora Cole has also made possible the Cole Fund, intended to support acquisitions related to history of science for Special Collections. Among the first acquisitions made possible by the Cole Fund are published 19th- and 20th-century works on dyes and dyeing complete with dye samples, such as that shown here (by William Crookes).
For more about William Cole and his collection, see