The book of the title has recently appeared giving a rich and detailed view over 417 pages, four appendices and 24 pages of photographs of how a university chemistry department in the UK came into being in 1845 and its subsequent history of discoveries, Nobel prizes and much more. If you have ever wondered what goes on in an academic department, populated by and large by very bright and clever personalities and occasionally some highly eccentric ones, then go dip into this book.
Here you will learn that starting in 1845, the department had 26 enrolled students, each paying a fee to attend lectures and to do experiments in the laboratories. You may observe the changes in laboratory practices over the years, and wonder how many of those early students survived their experiences and lived into old age. The book centres around the people in the department, with many anecdotes and stories about life in such a department, some of the stories about chemistry and some not! The chemistry these people discovered and recorded in journals can be quickly accessed using the (short) DOIs provided for many of the entries in the bibliography.
Few academic departments can have been documented in such detail. Indeed one must wonder whether the wealth of written material available to the authors, Hannah Gay and Bill Griffith, during this period will be matched by the much more evanescent electronic records that have become prevalent since. Email was introduced into the department around 1987 and I suspect almost all that record has now vanished permanently. I would not envy the task of anyone faced with updating this history from 2001-2050!
An aspect that is much harder to document is the daily routines of the undergraduate students. The book has a wealth of information about the practical laboratories and the instruments and apparatus found in the department, but a little less about the changing face of the lectures and associated written materials, the tutorials and problems classes and student’s own interactions with the professors, once the core (academic) activities and experiences of an undergraduate. Nowadays one may well find sessions on entrepreneurship instead of a problems class, or a flipped classroom replacing the lecture.
My own undergraduate stay in the department was from 1968-1971 and I might append some of those memories to this post in the future. If anyone reading this has their own evocative recollections of being a chemistry undergraduate, either at Imperial or elsewhere, can I invite you to share them here!