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Where Have the Chemistry Sets Gone?
By R.W. Von Korff
Published in The Midland Chemist, Vol. 43, No. 5, October 2006
Chemical Heritage has published several articles on chemistry sets and how they fit into the legacy of chemistry.1-4 From these articles, two phases are evident in the history of these chemistry teaching tools. In the 1930s-1950s, chemistry sets played an important role in stimulating young people to become chemists or to at least become familiar with chemicals. They provided small wooden or glass containers with solid chemicals as seen in the cover illustration of Chemical Heritage, Spring 2001. The physical form of an element or compound, whether solid or liquid, crystalline or amorphous, and the color were evident. However, from the 1980s on, a different picture emerges, with dilute solutions replacing the vivid materials of years past. Schmidt suggests that “Liability concerns have forced most of what is ‘dangerous’ out of the sets, no doubt also forcing out some of their mystery and appeal.”1 Sacks’ initial sentence, “There has been an increasing restriction on the availability of many chemicals in the past 40 years,”2 is followed by the citation of the Columbine High School incident as an example of how easily obtained chemicals can be deadly when misused.
With these thoughts in mind, I’d like to illustrate how important an exciting chemistry set was in initiating my research career, and reflect a bit on chemistry sets as they are used today.
My first chemistry set was obtained at the age of 11 in Portland, Oregon, while the family was touring the west. It led to my desire and determination, encouraged by my Dad, to become a chemist. The picture shown below, taken 5 years later, is of my first lab in what had been the sewing room of my grandmother’s home. By this time, I was taking a correspondence course in chemistry. The texts are shown in the upper right of the photo and the chemicals on the shelves to the left. (My experiences in obtaining chemicals from the drug store were nearly identical to those given by Sacks, Linus Pauling as cited by Sacks, and Talkin3.) The experiment in progress involved the preparation of ethyl ether from alcohol (denatured, I’m sure). The source of heat was an open flame fed from a portable acetylene tank; cooling of the distillate was via gravity-fed ice water-definitely a dangerous way to do this experiment as an explosion could have resulted!
In my late teens I was fortunate in having a much larger lab built by my Dad with a fume hood, Kipp generator, analytical balance, gas and water connections, etc. I worked methodically through the chemistry of as many elements as possible using Treadwell and Hall’s text on qualitative analysis as my guide.
In the late 1940s my thesis research at the University of Minnesota required trapping of C13O2 and N15H3. I frequently transported a five-gallon container of several gallons of liquid nitrogen about six blocks by bicycle to the university lab for my experiments. In various analytical and synthesis projects during my career I worked with perchloric acid in the determination of silicon in iron, perchloric-nitric acid mixtures for wet ashing of agricultural products, or blood to determine silicon from silane-coated plastic tubing used in heart perfusions in the early days of heart surgeries. Similarly, I used diazomethane for methylation, and phosgene and liquid ammonia for various syntheses, all accomplished without problems. In later years I was amazed that some of my biochemist friends refused to have perchloric acid in the lab or were fearful of using diazomethane. I learned that proper planning and care would prevent disasters.
Some 15 years later, while on a National Heart Institute post-doctorate under David E. Green5 I was able to break several log jams holding up the publication of a couple of important papers. One involved a coenzyme Green thought to be to be different than Coenzyme A (CoA) while others in the field were sure it was CoA. As he left for vacation, Green assigned me the task of comparing two analytical procedures, one that required what he termed Co-reductase and the other a classical method for the determination of CoA. When he returned from vacation he looked at the data, which showed identical results for the two assays on the same samples. This resulted in a boost to my reputation for the year.
A couple of months later we made a surprising discovery of how Coenzyme A could be isolated in large amounts by a relatively simple process. However, the manuscript could not be released because of the appearance of glutamic acid and glycine, not components of CoA. It was found, by questioning the analysts, that they were using an acid hydrolysis prior to microbiological analysis. This resulted in the release of glutamic acid and glycine, the latter from decomposition of the adenine moiety of CoA and the former from glutathione, an agent used in the isolation of CoA. This finding allowed release of the manuscript6 for publication. Later I was involved in the removal of another log jam that involved an answer to the mechanism by which acetate ion is converted to a high energy form (acetyl CoA) for further utilization. Much of the approach that I took to these and other problems can be attributed to those early days in my home lab.
Experiments with chemistry sets in the 1980s were a disappointment to me and failed to interest my oldest grandson in chemistry. (A Harvard graduate, he is now a graduate student with a major in math and physics at the University of California, Berkeley.) To perform an experiment one withdrew a few drops of dilute chemical solution by means of a plastic pipette bulb and added it to a test tube or beaker with other constituents-not exciting or particularly educational. My first reaction was to write letters to the ACS and to the manufacturers of the sets. However, living 700 miles away from my grandchildren and procrastination overcame my first reaction. But reading about the experiences of others as described in Chemical Heritage rekindled my interest in recounting my own experiences.
It is interesting to speculate on the factors that may be responsible for the decline in the availability and usefulness of chemistry sets. They are probably numerous, including an increase in fear of chemicals due to misuse of tremendous quantities of certain chemicals e.g., ammonium nitrate; fears promoted by increased publicity of environmentally toxic chemicals; changes in the nature of chemical research and teaching methods; and exponential growth in the availability of computers, leading to some attempts at the use of virtual labs employing computer software experiments. One such case I explored was very misleading in regard to safety aspects. Also, experimentation online is a bit like reading hundreds of pages from a good book on a computer screen instead of turning pages by hand in an easy chair…not nearly as rewarding!
I owe an undying debt of gratitude to my wife Jane whom I lost to an amelanotic melanoma after 47 years of marriage. Her everlasting support and encouragement was a priceless gift of love.
- James Schmidt, “The Chemistry Set: Chemistry’s Legacy of the Home Laboratory,” Chemical Heritage, Spring 2001, p. 12.
- Oliver Sacks, “Hard Times for Curious Minds,” Chemical Heritage, Spring 2001, p. 27.
- Phillip S. Talkin, “A Nostalgia Cocktail,” Chemical Heritage, Fall 2001, p. 22.
- Rosie DiVernieri, “The Chemistry Set: From Toy to Icon,” Chemical Heritage, Spring 2006, p. 22.
- Institute for Enzyme Research, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI.
- Helmut Beinert, R.W. Von Korff, D. E. Green, D.A. Buyaske, R.E. Handschumacher, Harvey Higgins, and F.M Strong, “A Method for the Purification of Coenzyme A from Yeast,” J. Biol. Chem., 200, 385. (1953).
Editor’s Note: Dick joined the American Chemical Society in 1939 and has had a rich and varied career. He obtained his Ph.D. in 1951 from the University of Minnesota and began working with Dr. Lewis Thomas. After six months, he went to the University of Wisconsin at Madison on a National Institute of Health fellowship, working with Dr. David Green, a famous enzymologist. In six months they made three important discoveries involving CoA and fatty acid oxidation. After a year, Dick returned to the University of Minnesota as an associate professor in biochemistry, working again with Dr. Thomas. According to Dick, Dr. Thomas was not only a great medical research investigator, he was also the author of a number of well-read books and was a frequent contributor to the New Yorker magazine. After Dr. Thomas left, Dick worked with Dr. Robert Good, who did the first human bone marrow transplant, then with Dr. John Anderson, head of pediatrics in the medical school. In 1966, he moved to Maryland to become director of biochemical research, initially for Friends of Psychiatric Research, Inc., and then for the state of Maryland’s new Maryland Psychiatric Research Center in Catonsville, Maryland. In 1977 he came to Midland as a research professor in biochemistry at what is now the Michigan Molecular Institute, retiring in 1985 at the age of 68.