Alfred Bader’s passing reminds me that there’s an earlier generation – now almost completely gone – that regarded the likes of Aldrich Chemical as fancy upstarts. There has (had?) always been a tradition in organic chemistry of making reagents fresh for your own use, either because there were no commercial suppliers (which is the market that Aldrich and others were filling) or because the needed compounds were too lively to be articles of commerce for anyone. And in some cases, although the commercial stuff will work, freshly prepared material really does work better. Manganese dioxide is one such reagent, although only once in my career have I needed the extra kick found in the home-made stuff – and a good thing, too, because filtering that mud is not a fit job for human beings. I’ve made my own Raney nickel from the alloy, too – once, and if I’m harboring any secret desires to spend another entire day washing the hydroxide out of that pyrophoric gunk then I must be repressing them pretty successfully.
By the time I was running my first synthetic organic reactions in the early 1980s, commercial Grignard and organolithium reagents had long been a feature of the landscape, but even so, you could find people to look down on them for you. I’ve never personally prepared any of the easily purchased ones (methyl Grignard, butyllthium, etc.) but I have definitely titrated some of them to make sure about the concentration listed on the label. That’s especially good practice for older or widely shared bottles, of course, because (1) not everyone handles the sealed bottles with care and (2) even if you do, the contents are going to deteriorate eventually. The first thing any bench chemist does on picking up a bottle of such a reagent is to hold it up to the light and see if it’s still a clear solution. Not all the cloudy ones are in such terrible shape, but none of the really good bottles are cloudy, either.
And you don’t have to be practicing for all that long before you can say “Now, I remember when you couldn’t buy such-and-such”, because suppliers hop onto useful reagents and reagent classes pretty quickly. There was a time, for example, when you could hardly buy any arylboronic acids, because who would want such things? And beyond reagents, there are tremendous numbers of building blocks available, which wasn’t always the case. The list of cute pyrrolidine and piperazine derivatives ready for purchase is really impressive, and a field like medicinal chemistry is always ready to hit the order button. Industrial med-chem has always been on the far extreme of the time-is-money spectrum, with cash-starved academic labs at the other end. One bunch is ordering 100-mg bottles of stuff for $500 a throw without the slightest compunction, while the other is redistilling wash acetone to do the dishes.
Those who have lived the latter lifestyle have an understandable tendency to go on about its virtues. I try to watch that stuff, myself. I’ve poured my own prep TLC plates – heck, at this point, it might be enough to say that I’ve run prep TLC in the first place – but I don’t think that it necessarily makes me a better person. I’ve worked in situations where we had to make our own dry ice (either that or drive to Little Rock to buy some), or where the nearest 300 MHz NMR was twenty miles away and we could use it two nights a week. These did not add polish to my personality. Nor did running preparations like the manganese dioxide or Raney nickel ones mentioned above. If anything, they made me slightly harder to be around, which is not a direction that most of us can afford to head casually. I got a good story out of making my own pyridinium chlorochromate with a summer undergrad, and another one out of making phenylsulfenyl chloride, but overall I think I’d rather not have the stories to tell and then get to skip the parts where I go up in a fireball of flaming solvent or have to count my fingers to see if they’re all still there.
No, the main thing that scientific deprivation does is make you happy when you’re not being deprived any more. I’ve worked in cash-strapped research environments and well-furnished ones, and rich is better. I’m willing to believe that there is such a thing as too much laboratory luxury, but I don’t think it’s a danger that most people are facing. Overall, the fewer impediments to getting your ideas reduced to practice, the better. I’m also willing to believe that necessity can indeed be the mother of invention, but there’s a flip side: lack of facilities can also kill off your ideas wholesale because you don’t even bother to think about doing experiments that you know can’t be realized.
I’m glad to have a walkup LC/MS machine right around the corner from me, and I’m equally glad that I don’t have to keep it running myself. My urges to set up and maintain a molten-potassium THF still are nonexistent (mind you, doing that would probably get me fired, and for good cause). I’m happy as a clam that there are so many reagents and intermediates that people are willing to sell me, so that I don’t have to make them. I have no desire whatsoever to go back to searching the literature by hand, and in retrospect, getting rid of years of hard-copy issues of JOC back in 2007 was an excellent decision. And so on. If someone wants to complain about the old days, I can join right in – but if someone tries to convince you that they were better, well, you have better things to do than listen to them.