Chemistry in History



Guest post by JessTheChemist

Scientists have a responsibility, or at least I feel I have a responsibility, to ensure that what I do is for the benefit of the human race’ – Harry Kroto

Thank you for your nominations for this month’s blog post. It was great to see so many of you getting involved in this series, highlighting interesting Nobel laureates for me to cover. However, I could only pick one winner, so I decided to write about Harry Kroto, inspired by this tweet from Bolton School:

Harry Kroto has a formidable CV. Not only is he a highly distinguished and talented chemist, but he does a great deal to improve the teaching of chemistry to future generations. This has included setting up the not-for-profit Vega Science Trust, which helps scientists communicate with the public at large, and even returning to his childhood school to build Buckyballs with students. (more…)

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‘As for monkshood and wolfsbane, they are the same plant, which also goes by the name of aconite.’ – Severus Snape, Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone by J. K. Rowling

In Harry Potter’s very first potions lesson he learnt about the magical properties of aconite. Muggle chemists, it seems, are only one step behind the magical world.

©istock

Aconitine – spelt slightly differently by scientists – has a highly complex structure that has never before been synthesised in the lab. But now, Duncan Gill from the University of Huddersfield, UK, has been awarded a £133,481 grant to develop a synthetic route to obtain this illusive molecule.

Attempts to make aconitine began after Czech chemist Karel Wiesner revealed its chemical structure in 1959. Weisner went on to publish several papers on the synthesis of alkaloids and terpenoids, an important initial step towards making the molecule. However, it wasn’t until last year that a major milestone was reached, when a team of researchers from the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Institute, New York, announced the total synthesis of the related compound, neofinaconitine. Building on the work of his predecessors, Gill will have to develop new chemical methods to reach his target molecule.

If successful, Gill, who has previously worked as a process chemist at AstraZeneca, will need to be particularly careful when handling this compound. Aconitine is a potent neurotoxin and has been dubbed the ‘Queen of poisons’. One of the most notable references to aconitine comes from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: it is the main ingredient in the toxic potion drunk by Romeo with fatal consequences.

The grant has been provided by the Leverhulme Trust and will be enough to employ a full-time post-doctoral advisor. Only time will tell if they can bring this fictional favourite to life in a laboratory setting.

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Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

Scurvy plagued early sailors, and although many treatments were tried and promoted, a simple cure was masked for centuries behind a series of mistakes and misunderstandings.

This story begins at sea, long into a voyage after the fresh food stock had long run out and the sailors were left with only grains, hardtack and cured meats to eat. The sailors would become desperate as scurvy began to set in. Sailors were lost to scurvy in vast numbers, with estimates as high as two million lives lost between 1500–1800 AD.

©Shutterstock

(more…)

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Guest post by JessTheChemist

‘The noblest exercise of the mind within doors, and most befitting a person of quality, is study’ – Ramsay

A few years ago I had the pleasure of meeting Jack Dunitz at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich. Little did I know that he was the academic great-great-grandson of the UK’s first chemistry Nobel Laureate, Sir William Ramsay. After discovering this connection, I decided to delve deeper to see which other chemistry legends Ramsay is connected to.

Ramsay began his career as an organic chemist, but his prominent discoveries were in the field of inorganic chemistry. At the meeting of the British Association in August 1894, Ramsay and Lord Rayleigh both announced the discovery of argon, after independent research. Ramsay then discovered helium in 1895 and systematically researched the missing links in this new group of elements to find neon, krypton, and xenon1. These findings led to Ramsay winning his Nobel prize in 1904 in ‘recognition of his services in the discovery of the inert gaseous elements in air, and his determination of their place in the periodic system’. (more…)

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Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

Among the many accidental discoveries through the ages is an experiment designed to probe carbon molecules in space, which unearthed a new terrestrial molecule.

Harry Kroto with buckyballs
© Science Photo Library

It all happened in an 11-day whirl, between 1 September 1985, when Harry Kroto first arrived at Rice University, US, and 12 September, when he, along with Richard Smalley and Robert Curl, submitted a paper to Nature: C60 Buckminsterfullerene’. Eleven years later, in 1996, the three were awarded the Nobel prize for chemistry.

(more…)

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‘The history of science, more than of any other activity, shows men and women of every nation contributing to the common pool of organised knowledge and providing the means for enhancing human welfare.’ – Ronald Nyholm, editorial in Education in Chemistry, vol. 1, issue 1.

50 years ago, the Royal Institute of Chemistry (RIC) announced a new quarterly magazine, with the aim of ‘improving the teaching of chemistry at all levels’. The RIC no longer exists (having merged with the Society for Analytical Chemistry and the Chemical and Faraday Societies to form the Royal Society of Chemistry) but the publication, Education in Chemistry or EiC, is still around to celebrate its golden anniversary.

Having spent the year in dusty archive rooms researching the history of the magazine, editor Karen J Ogilvie and assistant editor David Sait have emerged, blinking, back into the daylight, determined to celebrate in style. As well as planning a calendar of celebration events for those involved in the magazine, they’ve been busy rethinking their online home, and the refreshed and redesigned website launched on 12 November. (more…)

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Guest post by Chemistry World intern Dan Johnson

It has often been said of Franz Schubert, the great Austrian composer, that if the mark of a genius is an early death, then he can be considered a greater genius than Mozart. Mozart died at 35; Schubert at 31. But perhaps we should cast the net wider than music. On this scale of genius cut short, the death of Henry Moseley on 10 August 1915, at the age of only 27, might make his life the most fleetingly brilliant of all. His death is all the more poignant for what he might have achieved. In a few short years he laid out the basis for the modern periodic table, predicted the elements that would fill in the gaps and showed that x-rays could be a supreme analytical tool. Few achieve in a lifetime of research what he achieved in a career of just 40 months.

Henry Moseley in his lab

Henry Moseley in his lab

Moseley, known as Harry to his family, came from strong scientific stock. His father, Henry Nottidge Moseley, was a naturalist and professor at Oxford who journeyed on the Challenger expedition; his grandfather was a conchologist and fellow of the Royal Society. As a child it  seemed that he would follow his father –Harry and his sister scoured the surrounding countryside, cataloguing as much of the native flora and fauna as they could find. (more…)

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At the weekend I was off on a country jaunt to visit family. We went out to a delightful little pile in Wiltshire called Bowood House. However, despite all the science documentaries I’ve watched over the years that covered, among other things, the history of the elements I was taken by complete surprise when I walked into one of the rooms in the house: this was where oxygen was discovered.
Bowood House, Wiltshire

Bowood House, as it turned out, was where Joseph Priestley spent some of the most productive years of his scientific life in a tiny room-cum-lab only a little larger than a child’s bedroom. While working there in 1774, Priestley used a magnifying glass to focus the sun’s rays on mercury(II) oxide and liberated oxygen from it, naming the gas ‘dephlogisticated air’. This was because the prevailing theory of the time – phlogiston theory – held that substances that could be burned contained the mysterious substance phlogiston, while those that had been burned were dephlogisticated. Priestley was a life-long advocate for phlogiston theory and continued to defend it long after other scientists had concluded it was a dead end. Perhaps giving oxygen a name linking it with phlogiston meant that the theory still held some romantic associations for him. (more…)

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Heading over to Google today (other search engines are available) I noticed the rather intriguing Google Doodle shown above. Now I love the way Google updates it’s logo on specific days, but I have to admit that it seems a bit odd to celebrate the 138th birthday of anyone, after all it’s not much of a round number. (more…)

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Pity the poor French chemist Bernard Courtois. Despite being the discoverer of iodine he has sunk into relative obscurity. And as a result the photograph that many sources acknowledge as being the man himself is, in reality, that of a French railway worker, all thanks to a linguistic confluence.

NOT Bernard Courtois

It appears that what has occurred is a case of mistaken identity that is the result of mistranslation from French into English. The French for railway worker is cheminot, while chemist is chimiste. It just so happens that a railway worker by the name of Courtois, along with his photo, can be found on a genealogy website. This is the likely source of the mix up says Patricia Swain, a chemistry historian and teacher, who has written a short biography of Courtois’ life. She found no photo of him anywhere during her research and thinks it is unlikely that a photo of him exists anywhere.

(more…)

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