The Chemophilately Museum

Sample stamps from The Chemophilately Museum. GU-GANG CHANG CHANG

When letters were still the only form of long-distance communication, the stamps that carried them to their destinations were miniature works of art with special meanings and identities. The collecting of stamps became a popular hobby soon after the first stamps were issued in the mid-19th century.

Originally the purview of children and teenagers, stamp collecting was elevated when a French stamp enthusiast who was president of the first stamp collectors’ society coined the term “philately.” It connoted not only collecting but the serious study of stamps and postal history. The American Philatelic Society estimates that around 5 million people in the U.S. alone collect stamps. Several famous personalities including Franklin D. Roosevelt and Charlie Chaplin were enthusiastic stamp collectors.

Stamps have long celebrated a wide range of subjects including science and scientists like Americans Barbara McClintock, Linus Pauling, Melvin Calvin, Edwin Hubble, Josiah Willard Gibbs, Czech-American nobelists Carl and Gerty Cori, and Spanish-American biochemist Severo Ochoa. Several scientific events of importance have found their place on postage. Mercury Project and Messenger Mission stamps were released in 2011 at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to commemorate NASA’s Mercury exploration efforts. More recently, a stamp depicting global sea-surface temperatures based on NASA’s satellite images was released in 2014 in Washington, D.C.

Gu-Gang Chang, professor emeritus at National Yang-Ming University in Taiwan, is a biochemist and a passionate stamp collector. Chang owns a comprehensive set of chemistry-themed stamps that has taken 30 years to amass. Chang’s collection revolves around “chemophilately” and features a vast array of chemistry-themed subjects, such as chemical concepts, chemical history and notable chemists.

Chang has made his set available online through a website called the Chemophilately Museum. This virtual museum features his collection in both English and Taiwanese, indexed by topics such as atomic energy and X-ray crystallography. Some stamps date back to as early as 1888, and others refer to current events. Chang says the crystallography section of stamps was added to the exhibition when the United Nations proclaimed 2014 the International Year of Crystallography.

There are several sections in the Chemophilately Museum on DNA-themed stamps and famous scientists, such as Charles Darwin and the Nobel laureate Marie Curie. Unusual aspects of the collection include items like Philippine Science Tax Stamps, which served as documentary revenue stamps from 1969 to 1978. In addition to stamps, the site also features antique advertising cards, collectible revenue labels and perfins.

Chang describes perfins as stamps that have “punched holes as a security device to protect against pilferage. Perfins are historical philatelic materials.” Chang says perfins are seldom used today, as postage meters have replaced them. The perfins in the exhibition contain symbols or abbreviations for elements, compounds including methane, and biological molecules like hemoglobin. “It is fun to find out that so many biological terms are embedded in perfins,” says Chang.

With this site, Chang hopes to bring themed stamp collecting to a wider and newer audience — one that’s not deterred by the drop-off in stamped mail. He says, “In this electronic era, it is increasingly less common to receive stamped mail. However, stamp collecting remains one of the most common hobbies in many societies.”

Aditi Dubey Aditi Dubey is a graduate student studying the mechanism of selenocysteine incorporation at Rutgers University Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.