Stories from old papers

An aphid drawn by George Bowdler Buckton Figure: An aphid sketched by George Bowlder Buckton in ‘A monograph of the Membracidæ’. Image digitised by the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign, available via the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Most people’s idea of chemistry is of lab-coated scientists mixing liquids, making explosions, causing fires, and growing crystals. Though this stereotype—like most—is based on reality, a key part of any chemistry project is sitting down and reading the ‘literature’: the research papers written by scientists who have worked in the field before you.

This is, as all researchers know, often quite a mixed experience: once you have located relevant papers and breached the thicket of customised journal websites, the task of reading begins. You have to wade through the many articles that do not quite cover the topics you had thought, struggle past lengthy screeds that emphasise precisely the least interesting part of their work, and have your hopes dashed as you discover your inspired new compound has been already been synthesised.

Sometimes though, these searches can be an absolute pleasure. This is particularly true of older articles. There is a particular thrill in realising the paper you are reading is not only telling you about the topic in which you are interested, but the world as it was fifty, or even a hundred years ago. For example, imagine what it would be like to be G. S. Zhdanov, determining the structure of zinc cyanide in 1941,1 just before the launch of Operation Barbarossa. No matter how exciting the topic of these old papers, they often leave questions completely unanswered: not for any scientific neglect, but because the technical capabilities to solve the problems at hand were simply not available. If you’re reading a chemistry paper written before World War I, for example, the authors will not know the structures of their samples because X-ray crystallography had not been invented. The combined technology of over a century of research can make the answers to these historical questions unambiguously straightforward.

My current favourite historical author, George Bowdler Buckton, wrote probably the oldest paper I have consulted in earnest, which was published in 1855. 1855 is, by the standards of chemistry, practically prehistoric: Mendeleev’s periodic table wasn’t presented until fourteen years later, in 1869. As a result, there are some distinctive period features: the mass of nitrogen used is two times too big, and as a result the he described a complicated ‘sulpocyanide’ molecule (C2NS22–) rather than the simpler thiocyanate (NCS).

Though the paper is disadvantaged by being 163 years old, it is otherwise a very careful piece of research. It is thorough in ways we’d never imagine exploring today: ‘[in] common with all the soluble salts to be described, [the compound] has an exceedingly nauseous taste’(!). The writing is also of a style and standard not commonly found in modern science. One product is poetically described as ‘a remarkably beautiful substance, thrown down in the form of innumerable golden plates’. Despite their beauty, most of the compounds in this paper have never subsequently been investigated, let alone had their structures determined (watch this space).

George Bowlder Buckton is a figure of interest in his own right. He identifies himself as a Fellow of the Linnean Society, and indeed, many of his most lasting contributions are to be found in plant science, rather than chemistry. His most well known contribution to chemistry is being the first person to successfully synthesise dimethyl mercury.2 In retrospect this is a substantial achievement, as dimethyl mercury is one of the more infamously toxic compounds; a few drops can kill, and your death can take many months. A quick read of Buckton’s original papers reassures me that he did not try to carry out his usual full taste characterisation of dimethyl mercury, though we can perhaps deduce this from the fact he had a subsequent career as a biologist.

George Bowdler Buckton had a number of notable relatives, and those of you of the more literary persuasion may have had a twinge of recognition on seeing his middle name. George was named for his uncle, Thomas Bowdler, who is primarily famous for publishing, with his sister Harriet, a nineteenth century edition of Shakespeare in which ‘those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a Family’. This attempt to moderate Shakespeare’s work is usually considered a ridiculous endeavour: Ophelia’s suicide became a drowning accident, and the character of Doll Tearsheet was removed from Henry IV, Part 2 entirely because she is a prostitute. In short, Thomas and Harriet ‘bowdlerized’ the language. Some near contemporaries of the Bowdlers argued that their efforts in making Shakespeare accessible outweighed the errors in excision. The Victorian poet Swinburne said of Thomas that ‘no man ever did better service to Shakespeare than the man who made it possible to put him into the hands of intelligent and imaginative children’.3 George Bowdler Buckton may not have put chemistry into the hands of children (luckily), but his story illustrates some of the manifold and exciting ways that scientific literature connects us to the past.4

  1. G. S. Zhdanov, Doklady Akademii Nauk SSSR 31, 352 (1941) . [return]
  2. G. B. Buckton, Proc. R. Soc. London 9, 91 (1857). [return]
  3. A. C. Swinburne, Studies in Prose and Poetics, Chatto & Windus, London (1897). [return]
  4. More information about George Bowdler Buckton at Wikipedia and on a Buckton family website. [return]
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