The Artificial Cell, the Semipermeable Membrane, and the Life that Never Was, 1864–1901

Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 49 (5):504-555 (2019)
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Abstract

Since the early nineteenth century a membrane or wall has been central to the cell’s identity as the elementary unit of life. Yet the literally and metaphorically marginal status of the cell membrane made it the site of clashes over the definition of life and the proper way to study it. In this article I show how the modern cell membrane was conceived of by analogy to the first “artificial cell,” invented in 1864 by the chemist Moritz Traube (1826–1894), and reimagined by the plant physiologist Wilhelm Pfeffer (1845–1920) as a precision osmometer. Pfeffer’s artificial cell osmometer became the conceptual and empirical basis for the law of dilute solutions in physical chemistry, but his use of an artificial analogue to theorize the existence of the plasma membrane as distinct from the cell wall prompted debate over whether biology ought to be more closely unified with the physical sciences, or whether it must remain independent as the science of life. By examining how the histories of plant physiology and physical chemistry intertwined through the artificial cell, I argue that modern biology relocated vitality from protoplasmic living matter to nonliving chemical substances—or, in broader cultural terms, that the disenchantment of life was accompanied by the (re)enchantment of ordinary matter.

Author's Profile

Daniel Liu
Ludwig Maximilians Universität, München

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