Hjalmar Fors

Head of unit

I am a PhD (2003) and Docent (2014) in the history of science and Head of Unit at the Hagströmer medico-historical library, Karolinska Institutet.

About me

As Head of Unit at the Hagströmer Library, I lead the work of preserving and making available Karolinska Institutet’s collections of rare books, manuscripts and images.

Research description

My main areas of interest are chemistry/alchemy, pharmacy, natural history and mining sciences from c. 1550 to the beginning of the nineteenth century. I am also interested in knowledge transfers between Europe and China, the history of modern medical gymnastics, history of technology and STS (Science and Technology Studies). Theoretically, I am interested in the global and European circulation of knowledge, as well as the philosophical issues arising from science’s claims to superior knowledge and power, especially in relation to encounters with non-European cultures. I also cooperate with natural scientists in doing reproductions of scientific experiments and craft practices (Experimental History of Science).

In my most recent book, The Limits of Matter: Chemistry, Mining and Enlightenment (Chicago, 2015) I studied the emergence of the modern concept of matter. A Swedish translation, Upplysningens element: Materia och världsbild under 1600- och 1700-talet, was published by Fri Tanke förlag in 2020.

I am the director of a research cooperation with CESIMA (Centro Simao Mathias de Estudos em Historia da Ciencia) at the Pontifica Universidade Católica de Sao Paulo, Brazil. In this exchange, we make a critical evaluation of the recent theories of global knowledge exchange that has emerged out of postcolonial studies. On the Swedish side, the participants are the dept. for History of Science and Ideas and the Office for History of Science in Uppsala, and the Unit for Medical History and Heritage, Karolinska Institutet.

My most recent large research project, Reconstructing early modern pharmacy: Global trade networks, substances and practices started in 2015 and finished in 2018. The research was conducted at the dept. for History of Science and Ideas, Uppsala university, and pursued in cooperation with Nils-Otto Ahnfelt, an analytic pharmaceutical chemist. By recreating an early modern medicine, called Swedish Bitters, we reconstructed lost pharmaceutical, medical and botanical skills. The project integrated history of pharmacy into current research in global history and history of science, and reinterpreted the significance of exotic substances to early modern medical practice. The project was funded by Riksbankens Jubileumsfond.