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The Perils of Schoole Chymistrie

60+ Years Ago

Memoirs Of A Skeptycal Chymist

RIGHT from my earliest days at LCGSB I was fascinated by the mysterious goings-on that took place in the upstairs room known then as the Sixth-form Chemistry Lab. We youngsters waiting for our biology lessons in the bio lab would watch with amazement as these great men with deep voices, some wearing prefects blazers, went into the inner sanctum. We would catch glimpes of stained white coats with regulation spatula in top pocket and catch a whiff of the most amazing smells ranging from bad eggs to fruity wines. As the door closed (the blind on the door was always down) I would wonder what marvellous things were happening in there. Would I ever be like them, I wondered? It seemed a very remote and unlikely possibility.

Charlie Gourlay The years passed but the mystery didn't go away. As I learned something of chemistry I became even more attracted to the idea of becoming a real chemist. This attraction was multiplied a hundred-fold when I watched Mr Gourlay, then the senior chemistry master, give a Christmas Lecture to a packed audience which included what seemed to me to be magic. [as Isaac Asimov once said "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic"]. Not just the water into wine routine, I was already familiar with acids, alkalis and litmus, but real mind-blowing stuff like serpents eggs, mysterious flasks containing apparenty clear fluid which glowed in the dark. There were substances that gave mysterious bangs when trodden on and clear solutions that went completely black and opaque seemingly without any human intervention! I was completely hooked. This was FUN!

Into the Sixth Form

In due course I made it to the Lower Sixth and was at last privileged to walk past the small boys into the holy of holies, the Sixth Form chemistry lab and pay my 2s/6d for a new nickel spatula and an inch of platinum wire. I had already acquired a lab coat and felt very conspicuous with it being so clean and gleaming white. Although it was a laboratory it also served as a teaching room where we sat perched uncomfortably on wooden stools taking down the words of wisdom from our mentor.

Now it has to be understood, especially by the younger generations, that chemistry was taught in a very different way to that used today. It was very much a "hands-on" activity and the current obsession with safety, whereby children are kept very much at a distance and not allowed to handle dangerous chemicals and made to use gloves and protective face masks, had not even been considered much less put into practice. It was chemistry in the raw.

The Sixth Form chemistry lab had reagents on the tables, bottles of chemicals on shelves, and the strong acids all to hand. True there was a small windowless storage room where some of the more esoteric and less frequently used chemicals were kept, but this was more for convenience than safety. Many of the chemicals would not be allowed anywhere near a school in this day and age. In particular I remember that we had a 50 gram bottle of potassium cyanide in there on the top shelf. I remember because I once used it while in the third year sixth for an obscure organic preparation I was attempting. I admit to a very scary feeling when weighing it out, tight lipped, on the balance. Only a few months previously we had had the news about how Himmler and other leading Nazis had committed suicide by chewing a small capsule of KCN, so I was under no illusions about its potential danger.

The lab had, as I remember, two fume cupboards "venting" through the wall. In those days electric fan extracters were not fitted in the school laboratory fume cupboards. The only method of creating a draught was a single gas burner located in the fume cupboard just under the vent pipe to give some thermal convection. The burners were rarely used because if the wind was in the wrong direction they were ineffective. In any case one of the cupboards had an old birds nest in the outside cowl and nobody had a ladder long enough to get up and clear it! So, in short, the fume cupboards were useless as fume cupboards. That did not prevent them being used however. Each fume cupboard contained a monstrous beast known as a Kipps apparatus. These devices held an acid and solid ferric sulphide which reacted to give copious amounts of hydrogen sulphide gas which we used for analysis by bubbling it through a solution in a test-tube to precipitate sulphides.


A large part of chemistry in those days was learned by qualitative analysis which involved the precipitation of metal sulphides in various conditions. We would be given, individually, a mixture of two salts, eg nickel sulphate and cadmium chloride, and asked to identify the anions and cations using a set procedure. It was entertaining and instructive. What I did not appreciate at the time was the toxicity of hydrogen sulphide, which because of the useless fume cupboards was permeating the whole lab and being breathed by all and sundry for a couple of hours at a time during practicals. At the time I used to get violent headaches and chest pains which the doctor was unable to explain. Only towards the end of my time at school did I realise the cause and by then it was rather late. The legacy of that experience is that I have damaged bronchi today that contribute to wheezing and a form of asthma.

Chemistry was certainly a hazardous activity in those conditions. I once attempted to try the preparation of phosphorus trichloride. Why Mr Gourlay allowed me to start such a hazardous undertaking I cannot think! I set up the apparatus in the "fume cupboard" and set to work cutting off about five grams of raw yellow phosphorus, which is always stored in sticks under water. What I had not worked out was how to get this small quantity of phosphorus into the retort safely. I had it on a wet filter paper on the slate base of the fume cupboard where it dried out (I was too slow) and spontaneously ignited. Panic stations! I pushed it quickly into the little dry sink in the fume cupboard where it burned merrily creating masses of billowing white smoke. The wind was blowing the wrong way and the smoke came out and filled the lab! One could barely see across the room! A few windows were flung open and we all debouched into the corridor and closed the door. It was some time before we were able to go back in. Luckily no great harm was done but it put me off phosphorus for ever. [Incidently there is a book called "The Shocking History of Phosphorus - a Biography of the Devil's Element" published by Macmillan, ISBN 0 333 76638 5, which graphically illustrates why inexperienced would-be chemists should treat phosphorus with more respect than I did.]

The ultimate mystery behind the hazardous nature of school chemistry at LCGS in those early years is how Mr Gourlay himself survived for so long in such conditions? He was confined with both upper and lower sixth forms several times a week for several decades and he smoked heavily, frequently and deeply, often in the midst of this Stygian fug. He never caught a cold - the bugs didn't stand a chance. He must have had lungs of leather!

Dangerous Pranks

In some ways Mr G. rather played up to the schoolboy notion that chemistry is fun and the ideal medium for pranks. He was quick to show us the properties of copper acetylide and other similar unstable materials.What perhaps did not come over sufficiently well was the need for extreme caution and use of small quantities. The old joke of mixing strong white nitric acid with another well known lab chemical (I refrain from giving the name) in a flask and waiting for the long delayed evolution of copious volumes of the sweet smelling but highly acidic brown nitrogen dioxide was copied from time to time with ever increasing quantities by pupil pranksters until even he tired of the joke. Matters did rather come to a head when he discovered a young idiot in the lower sixth fooling around with strong nitric acid and glycerol. Luckily Mr G. had a very sharp eye and this particular lad displayed signs of juvenile irresponsibility which caught his attention. The boy in question was, I believe, asked to leave school and direct his efforts to a less dangerous career elsewhere. We never saw him again. Was it the smaller Williams?

By the time I had spent three years in the Sixth I had gained a little more repect for chemicals and no more damage than corroded lungs, brown fingers and a lab coat that had more holes than substance. I still keep my old nickel spatula as a memento of those wild days. I moved on to University and began to learn of the necessity for extreme caution but there are pitfalls everywhere as I was to find. I worked on an obscure property of beryllium sulphate for several weeks in the fifties before I learned of beryllium's extreme toxicity. How could I have been so stupid as to forget to look into toxicity? Luckily though experience of handling chemicals carefully I had avoided trouble but there could always have been the unforseen accident. Thankfully I found out before any harm was done.

Today chemistry is taught at school in a much safer way, mostly I suspect because the school authorities and their insurers are scared witless at the thought of heavy financial claims for injury. I often wonder what motivates the young chemist today, when he is so effectively insulated from the free-ranging hands-on experience we had in the late forties. Maybe that is why chemistry is not so popular as an A level subject as it was fifty years ago.