March 2016



Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple

– Jenny Joseph

Colour is a powerful thing. It communicates emotions, beauty and status, unleashes our creativity and draws our attention. Wearing purple may have seemed slightly eccentric to poet Jenny Joseph, but in ancient Rome, it was the colour of power – and no surprise: their Tyrian purple was not only a lasting dye that seemed to become more rather than less vibrant under the sun, but it reportably took as many as 12,000 snails to produce enough dye to colour the trim of a toga!1

Purple clothing – ©iStock

Up until the mid 19th century, all dyes were naturally produced – from minerals (yellow ochre), plants (indigo and turmeric), or animals (cochineal and Tyrian purple). Of course, some of these natural dyes had their problems. Making Tyrian purple required thousands of snails and a laborious process, other colours were inclined to fade or run, and some even broke down the fabrics they were used to colour.

Despite all of this, synthetic alternatives were not sought at the time: organic chemistry was not sufficiently understood to guess at a link between structure and properties, and in fact, by the mid 1800s, chemistry was still very much a private practice.

One chemical practitioner was August Wilhelm von Hofmann of the Royal Society. Hofmann was interested in quinine, an extract from the bark of the cinchona tree used to treat malaria. In the mid 1800s, he published a hypothesis for the synthetic production of quinine, and set one of his students the challenge of producing it. (more…)

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Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

How do you feel about Botox?

To some, it’s a routine fix, a gift in the battle for eternal youth, found at the tip of a needle. Others, perhaps understandably, feel rather uncomfortable at the thought of injecting their face with a potent neurotoxin, just 50 grammes of which could wipe out all human life.

A man recieving botox treatment – © Shutterstock

But how would you feel to hear that Botox was discovered by accident – that this potent neurotoxin, which acts by paralysing muscles into flaccidity, was at some point injected into somebody without knowing everything it would do? In a marriage between cosmetics and surgery, this is how Botox came about.

Of course, people have been looking for something like Botox – and for a long time too. Back in the 16th century, women would stir up a white paste of vinegar and lead and plaster it across their faces in the same vein as foundation today. Once the mask had set, they would be unable to make any facial expressions at all for fear of cracking it, but apparently it was still worth it, despite the massive doses of lead that would have been slowly poisoning them, and the rancid unpleasant smell of the vinegar. Slightly less bizarre (but bizarre all the same) was the later introduction of uncooked egg white glaze to the same result. This at least didn’t poison anybody, assuming the eggs were healthy.

Then, in the 1820s, there came ‘wurstgift’. This was not a cosmetic face paint, but the first discovery of botulinum, found by German scientist (and apparent masochist) Dr Justinus Kerner, who isolated it from sausages that were past their best. He was investigating the deaths of several Germans at the hands of blood sausages, and his analysis of the toxin included going as far as injecting it into himself to observe its effects. Dr Kerner was, in fact, the first recipient of botulinum toxin, or Botox. (more…)

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Another year means only one thing, another chance for some epic chemistry doodles to deface the front of our favourite reading material. So far, the first few months of the year have certainly not disappointed.

The Royal Society of Chemistry has made a strong start to the year; in Chemical Society Reviews some smart art quite literally added to the chemical toolbox, whilst another elemental superhero smashed the main group of the periodic table in a focussed special edition from February. Over at Chem. Comm. I spotted a delightful entry using a stained glass window to demonstrate MOFs forming ‘holey glass’.

Across the sea at Wiley, Angewandte Chemie continues to stack up the comical pictures in their ever growing art gallery. Every week they put out not just one, but four front covers! Because as we all know a magazine obviously has four fronts, including the front front, the inside front, the back to front, the inside out and probably some others. Angewandte also produces a frontispiece, which serves as yet another cover for a featured article. A particularly forceful recent entry announced the latest episode in the benzene chemistry saga as the Cubane Awakens.

One of my favourite covers from the start of this year, however, is from Green Chemistry where it appears that a new set of emoticons have taken over. (more…)

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Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

Witches, everybody knows, don’t like to be messed with. Mess with them, and they’ll point their horribly gruelled finger at you and intimate that you will be next.

And no time nor place we know of now was worse than the Salem witch trials of 1762. Fingers were pointed all over the place, and the rope swung on the gallows. It lasted for a season, a miserable spring, and then it ended, but it was not forgotten.

Ergot infested rye – © Shutterstock

In 1976, Linnda Caporael published a paper that pointed the finger for witchcraft in a different direction – into the fields. They mostly contain rye in that part of Massachusetts, and it had been a warm, damp growing season, the kind that breeds moulds and fungus. Caporael indicated one fungus in particular: ergot, an alkaloid-loaded parasite.

At the time, the dark, fusiform fingers that protrude from the rye ears like they’re giving one-up to the heavens were thought to be simply sun-baked kernels, harmless. But this was far from the case, and in 1853 ‘ergotism’ was discovered, a long term cumulative poisoning from eating ergot.

Although they knew nothing of ergotism in Salem, it is possible that the accusers suffered from it. (more…)

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