Two feet in the grave: poisonous socks among forty-two chemistry tales

Posted by pt91 at Oct 12, 2011 05:20 PM |
Chemistry’s colourful history is detailed in a new book by a University of Leicester historian.

From the title, you might expect Messrs Holmes and Watson to be taking the lead in The Case of the Poisonous Socks: Tales from Chemistry. Instead, this collection of essays written by William Brock, Emeritus Professor of History of Science here at Leicester features a colourful cast of real-life chemistry detectives.

The title essay describes the work that revealed the consequences of using aniline dyes to colour socks in the 1860s; after a doctor informed a London magistrate that brilliantly coloured socks had caused severe "constitutional and local complaint" in his patients, respected chemist William Crookes offered to identify the poison if doctors would send him samples of these deadly socks.

Highlights include accounts of taste, smell and flavour; the quirky beliefs of an American philanthropist who financed important research at the Royal Institution; the development of chemical and physical laboratories since the 1830s; insurance chemistry; chemistry in the aquarium; the failed chemical career of the artist George Du Maurier (grandfather of novelist Daphne Du Maurier); and the Leicester and Cambridge career of CP Snow before he became a novelist.

C P Snow

The book contains new and revised essays and reviews written over the past forty years after Professor Brock left chemistry to practice as an historian of science at the University. The collection of 42 stories is divided into six sections, each with its own introduction.

The first contains chemical tales that explore the ways chemistry has seen its own future; the second looks at the social history of chemistry and the way it has been organised; a third section offers vignettes of some major figures in chemistry; the fourth demonstrates that women have played a significant role in the development of the chemical sciences; a fifth group of essays deals light-heartedly with intriguing chemistry books and journals. The book ends with an examination of chemists who, for various reasons, made their names in different fields.

The overall aim of these well-illustrated essays is to beget a better public understanding of the role that chemistry plays in society. The book's broad coverage makes it of interest to chemists, teachers, historians and laypeople with an interest in science. Written with a light style and presented in a series of unconnected vignettes the book is easy to dip into at leisure.

It is published by the Royal Society of Chemistry, priced at £19.99.

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