I enjoyed this piece on “The Changing Culture of Chemistry”. The author, Bruce Gibb of Tulane, has in mind the changes that are apparent when you read old papers that describe (say) a couple of unidentified people associated with the project ingesting one of the sulfur-containing components of asparagus (asparagusic acid, newly isolated from 40 kilos of thick, syrupy “asparagus concentrate”, which must have been a joy) to see if that was the source of the smell that it imparts to human urine. That happened in 1948, and you can definitely say that it was a different era. I know that your curiosity is up, so I’ll mention that they concluded that asparagusic acid wasn’t the cause, although current research suggests that it is (via metabolism to volatile thiols – the earlier volunteers may well have not eaten enough of the stuff).
But that got me to thinking about what sorts of things were more common when I started out in chemistry that would seem odd now. The immediate example is from my college chemistry: in my freshman year we did a freezing-point-depression lab with benzene, as it had been done since anyone could remember. I was immediately struck by its distinctive odor, which makes me wonder just how much of that odor I was exposed to. But I was part of the last class that did it that way; benzene dropped off the list, never again to be seen in the undergrad labs. Even at the time, we heard stories from the older professors about how they used to clean the vacuum pump parts in deep baths of the stuff, so at least I missed out on that.
The oldest faculty member in the department was Prof. Shideler, whose pedigree went back to Roger Williams of folic acid fame. He would drop mentions of things that would curl your hair, such as the use of hydrogen sulfide gas as a laboratory reducing agent (“We used to fog the air with the stuff; only later did we realize that it was roughly as toxic as cyanide”). So I’m glad I missed that one, too. I took Shideler’s last biochemistry course in 1982 (he was an emeritus professor by then), and as twenty-year-olds, we regarded him as the personification of The Old School, a sort of coelacanth who would throw questions at you on the last page of an exam about bacterial variations of the Krebs cycle. (“If this class were a democracy, the answer that most of you got would be the correct one. Unfortunately, this is a dictatorship. . .”) He was a link to the “Here, eat some of this and see if your urine smells funny” era.
So for this Friday, I’ll throw out the question: are there things that were done in your early chemistry years that would raise eyebrows now? Just how long did some of the less-approved practices hang on in some areas? I look forward to the comments. . .