Book review

The Case of the Poisonous Socks, Tales from Chemistry

The Case of the Poisonous Socks, Tales from Chemistry by William H Brock, 2011, 348 pages paperback, RSC Publishing, ISBN 978-1-84973-324-3

The Case of the Poisonous Socks is a dense, robust, scholarly book which one must read slowly and carefully in order to enjoy all the nuances that William Brock has explored within each chapter. The book is actually not a book at all but a collection of essays Brock has written over his forty-year career as a chemical historian. However, these essays have been cleverly chosen and organized into a coherent and guided history.

The Case of the Poisonous Socks is decidedly British with a large proportion of the essays devoted to British history. That said, Brock is no “Rule Britannia” fanatic. Numerous American, German and other European chemists are highlighted in the book. Indeed, Brock takes great pains to note the early superiority of German chemists over their British counterparts. Brock also brings to light lesser known figures choosing to leave out the Daltons, Thomsons and Chadwicks among others. What is impeccable is the thoroughness of the histories offered. Whether the topic is chemical societies, journals or individual chemists, Brock includes the humblest of beginnings and carries on through, in some cases, to closure or death. In between we are treated to the major players, written anecdotes and correspondence, and stories that bring these figures to life.

The Case of the Poisonous Socks includes 42 essays collected into 6 different areas. Each section contains a separate introduction where Brock lays out the premise and the organization of the grouping. The opening section introduces us to some chemical tales, the first of which is the case of the poisonous socks — a mystery of foot problems solved by the chemistry of orange socks. The second contains a sociological view of the origins of chemical organizations. The next two sections deal with individual chemists, their lives and contributions — the latter section devoted to female chemists. Then a historical look at chemical publications, their origins and struggles is explored. Finally a section was devoted to those chemists who ventured off into different careers.

There is a good deal for everyone to enjoy in The Case of the Poisonous Socks. The opening story leads to the history of dyes in general as well as food dyes. We read about the discovery of glutamic acid and meat extract that gave rise to Oxo and Bovril all the while being introduced to the chemists responsible for both theory and discovery.

For those interested in how chemistry became organized Brock does not disappoint. How chemical education was first introduced to the schools, the introduction of laboratories and how the different chemical societies came into being are all fascinating to read about. To give a thorough and complete view, Brock examines several relevant financial bequests, explaining the politics involved and the strings attached.

The two sections about the individual chemists were a personal favourite. While one often has a chance to read about scientists and their lives, rarely will one find such detail included. Here, one can read about Avogadro, Kekulé and the partnership of Wöhler and Liebig — who together published over 1000 papers. The chapter on Haber makes excellent reading for both the chemist and the teacher. Brock does not mince words as he lays out Haber’s brilliance and chemical success as well as his less than humane way of thinking. With his section on female chemists, Brock shows us how far we have come toward equality. Reading about the “Mathilda Effect” can give one a true appreciation of the trials of being a woman at the turn of the 20th century.

In the section on publications one will read about the birth of journals, publications such as the Dictionary of Chemistry, books on aquarium chemistry, pottery and even insurance. As for those lost to chemistry, a number of authors and musicians are presented. Brock gives their early history as chemists prior to their alternate career. Notable among these are the actor George du Maurier — father of writer Daphne du Maurier — and the composer Elgar.

For the chemistry teacher, any time one can know more about the background of those about whom we teach, we are able to offer our students much more than just the science. Having someone else delve into the history and distill it for us makes this learning all the easier. Occasionally, one will read something that will resonate. For me, there is a quote by Robert Bunsen that ranks with one by Albert Einstein. While neither is “flattering” to chemistry, in bantering with colleagues, it helps to know the sources.