Skip to main content
Menu

Chemical News

Max Gergel’s Memoirs

For once, I’m going to farm out a “Things I Won’t Work With” post to someone else. For those who missed it in the comments, here’s the link to the PDF of Max Gergel’s extraordinary memoir “Excuse Me Sir, Would You Like to Buy a Kilo of Isopropyl Bromide?” Gergel founded Columbia Organic Chemicals, and if you want to see how it was done in the Old Days, this is the place to go. A sample:

“. . .As we chatted, as if the thought had struck him for the first time, the old rogue said, “You know Gergel, I have a prep you could run for us which would make you a lot of money.” Now this was the con working on the con. When my mother told me that a gentleman had called from town asking to visit Dr. Gergel there was no one at the plant except the two of us; when Parry, whom I already knew by reputation, sauntered in disguised as a simple country bumpkin I knew he was the director of research for Naval Research Labs, and his mission was to find someone foolhardy enough to make pentaborane. News travels. I met him at the door and told him that I was simply a lab flunky but would fetch Mr. Gergel, that my boss was extremely smart but had been prevented by the war effort (in which he had served valiantly and with distinction) from getting a PhD; that right now Mr. Gergel was extremely busy with priority reaction but would be able to see him in ten minutes—which gave me time to change my clothes and wash my face. He never realized that we were the same person. Parry chatted with me in the breezy, confidential voice that has been used by every con man since Judas Iscariot and told me that the only reason that the Navy was willing to farm out this fascinating project was simply luck of qualified personnel. That my splendid contribution to Manhattan District was well known by the military, that people spoke of me as a true Southern prodigy. (The old devil was so good that I listened with gradually increasing preparedness to make pentaborane, although I had been forewarned that it was dog with a capital “D”. . .

I came across the book in Duke’s chemistry library in 1984, a few years after its publication, and read it straight through with my hair gradually rising upwards. Book 2 is especially full of alarming chemical stories. I suspect that some of the anecdotes have been polished up a bit over the years, but as Samuel Johnson once said, a man is not under oath in such matters. But when Gergel says that he made methyl iodide in an un-air-conditioned building in the summertime in South Carolina, and describes in vivid detail the symptoms of being poisoned by it, I believe every word. He must have added a pound to his weight in sheer methyl groups.
By modern standards, another shocking feature of the book is the treatment of chemical waste. Readers will not be surprised to learn that several former Columbia Organic sites feature prominently in the EPA’s Superfund cleanup list, but they certainly aren’t alone from that era.

20 comments on “Max Gergel’s Memoirs”

  1. bearing says:

    I got this book out of Interlibrary Loan last month after reading a recommendation in the comments. My husband and I are both chemical engineers by training, and we both enjoyed it. Around the same time we read a memoir called _The Green Flame_ about the production of pentaborane — it relates the story of at least one of the plant explosions mentioned in Gergel’s book. I don’t remember if that one has ever been mentioned here — it was recommended to me by a friend.

  2. John says:

    Don Cram used to tell stories about starting his career at UCLA in a chemistry building with no fume hoods. He never got tired of telling stories about undergrads passing out while working with hydrogen sulfide in the qualitative analysis lab that he taught in the 1960s.
    When I was at there in the 1980s, there were rumors of extremely high rates of lung cancer in former Saul Weinstein students, who of course had spent their graduate careers synthesizing low molecular weight, highly reactive SN1 electrophiles. (SN1 electrophiles are not efficiently captured by glutathione, and so are more likely to alkylate DNA than SN2 electrophiles.) Given the absence of and/or casual attitudes toward fume hoods that likely existed at UCLA in the 1950s and 1960s, I’ve always attached a fair amount of credibility to these rumors, but have never been able to confirm them.

  3. Hap says:

    That wouldn’t be surprising [see link (paywall)]. There were lots of things people probably didn’t expect.

  4. Matt says:

    Kary B. Mullis reminisces about Columbia Organic in a 1993 Nobel Lecture:
    “During the summer breaks from Georgia Tech, Al Montgomery and I built an organic synthesis lab in an old chicken house on the edge of town where we made research chemicals to sell. Most of them were noxious or either explosive. No one else wanted to make them, somebody wanted them, and so their production became our domain. We suffered no boredom and no boss. We made enough money to buy new equipment. Max Gergel, who ran Columbia Organic Chemicals Company, and who was an unusually nice man, encouraged us and bought most of our products, which he resold. There were no government regulators to stifle our fledgling efforts, and it was a golden age, but we didn’t notice it.”
    Gergel’s memoir contains a little fretting about government interference in the practice of chemistry too. Having read it, and reports about dozens of Superfund sites, it’s not hard to see why the pendulum swung so hard the other way. I’m still of the libertarian-ish persuasion that it’s no business of the government’s if you want to skimp on health and safety protections for yourself, but I can’t justify doing the same to employees, neighbors, or the future owners of your property.
    What’s the situation with Wild West chemistry outside highly developed nations? In 20 years are Chinese officials going to “discover” that pouring waste into pits leaves an expensive-to-clean mess behind, or have they already learned by example to set and enforce regulations? One of the commonly cited reasons for the attractiveness of offshoring is reduced regulation but I don’t know what that amounts to in practice.

  5. CTChemist says:

    Interesting relationship between this post and the previous. It appears Gergel was part of a “Golden Age” as well. Note this paragraph from this 1993 Nobel Lecture:
    “I never tired of tinkering in labs. During the summer breaks from Georgia Tech, Al Montgomery and I built an organic synthesis lab in an old chicken house on the edge of town where we made research chemicals to sell. Most of them were noxious or either explosive. No one else wanted to make them, somebody wanted them, and so their production became our domain. We suffered no boredom and no boss. We made enough money to buy new equipment. Max Gergel, who ran Columbia Organic Chemicals Company, and who was an unusually nice man, encouraged us and bought most of our products, which he resold. There were no government regulators to stifle our fledgling efforts, and it was a golden age, but we didn’t notice it. We learned a lot of organic chemistry.”
    For the full lecture, see:
    http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/chemistry/laureates/1993/mullis-lecture.html

  6. Sili says:

    Another subject I as a commoner found iffy, was his black market procurements for Israel. But it was a different time, I guess. There’s no way I can comprehend what it must have been like to be Jew after the War.

  7. okemist says:

    I remember finding the book in the late 80’s in Allied’s BRL library, and the MeI story reminded me of college lab in Buffalo doing flame ionization and my partner loading too much sample into the ceramic holder and the smoke going up the hood and pouring out the intake vents because there was no fan! and it turned out to be a Hg salt. I never met him, but I have heard him described as the person who put the man in Salesman!

  8. Joe Loughry says:

    Some information about Dequasie’s book _The Green Flame: Surviving Government Secrecy_ is here:
    http://www.dequasiebooks.com/green.html

  9. Harry says:

    Max was a fascinating charecter. One of my first experiences involving him was a three cornered deal he made with a large photographic company to take about 300 drums of waste dodecylamine acetate off their hands. My boss at the time paid Max for the material, intending to recover it. On top of that Max was to get a cut of any sales we made of the recovered material. I thought that was a pretty good deal…for Max. As it turned out Max was also getting paid by the generator to take the waste.
    Long story short- we never were able to recover the waste economically, we ended up paying to dispose of it (incineration- fortunately it had good heating value, so it wasn’t too awfuly pricey to burn).
    As I got more experience, I learned that this was the usual sort of deal with Max. You really, really needed to ask lots of good questions up front.
    The industry has certainly changed in the 35 years I’ve been involved in it. Not many wheeling-dealing types around anymore.

  10. newnickname says:

    In the late 1980’s or early 1990’s, Max was the invited speaker at some regional (local?) Boston area ACS meeting that included a younger (undergrads, maybe even high school students) audience and he was telling tales of the days at Columbia Organics and how things were done back then. Most of the stories evoked much laughter because Max was such a good story teller.
    Nevertheless, someone published a letter in C&EN condemning the situation because it was irresponsible and it was exposing the youngsters to such unsafe and environmentally damaging things and one should not make light of such things.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Whatever happened to Max and Columbia Organics? A google search isn’t turning up much.

  12. Dannoh says:

    Thank you for bringing up and linking to these delightful memoirs that I probably never would have come in contact with had I not been following this site. Gergel’s stories had me laughing almost as much as “Ignition”, which was a bit tough to find, but was well worth the effort upon reading.

  13. GLC says:

    You should also be aware that Gergel (a delightful guy, at one time a regular at the ACS small chemical business sessions) also published a sequel to Excuse Me, Sir. It was titled The Ageless Gergel, and is equally worth a read.
    This habit of publishing personal memoirs has a long and honorable history in chemistry. One need only consider E. Emmett Reid (My First Hundred Years in Chemistry) or Louis Fieser (The Scientific Method). Fieser’s book was removed (and presumably destroyed) by most libraries in the late sixties because of its comprehensive description of the construction of some very loud devices.
    And of course, the grand effort that started it all, the Berichte der Durstigen Chemischen Gesellschaft, a special edition of Berichte published when August Kekule himself was Vorsitzer. I could locate only two existing copies, about 50 years ago.
    My personal collection of all of these will go, I hope, to a suitable repository someday. If I can find one that won’t burn them!

  14. Chris says:

    Mac users may wish to be careful here as the linked PDF has a virus-like effect.

  15. Adam Thornton says:

    Virus-like effect?
    You mean the sweating, shivering, and throwing up?
    I think that’s just a reaction to the stories, actually.

  16. Elizabeth says:

    Max is alive and well in Columbia, South Carolina – in his late 80’s. Columbia Organic Chemical Company was sold to one of the employees, Steve Reichlyn, when Max retired. The company soon succumbed, and several of the properties it had owned became Superfund sites. Max has many friends, has mentored many chemists, and is always glad to hear from them.

  17. Anonymous says:

    The post would be better if you closed the quote when it ended.

  18. cameron says:

    @18 I think that was both a beginning and ending quotation.

Comments are closed.