The Chemistry Department at Imperial College London. A history, 1845-2000.

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!

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6 Responses to “The Chemistry Department at Imperial College London. A history, 1845-2000.”

  1. Henry Rzepa says:

    Here is a story from a personal perspective as a chemistry undergraduate. In the summer of 1970, I was about to enter the third and final year of my degree course. In early October about 20 of us went into the laboratory (named after Frankland) and met the advanced organic laboratory course supervisor, Peter Sammes. He told us that during the summer, about £30,000 of money allocated to the undergraduate teaching laboratories had to be spent quickly, and that he had placed an order for a brand new Varian T60 NMR spectrometer. In september, the machine had arrived and was still settling down. Neither he nor anyone else knew how to operate it. And given its expense, it was felt that an undergraduate experiment dedicated to its use should also be introduced. He asked for volunteers to develop and test such an experiment, adding the inducement that who ever did so would be given “double weight” for the laboratory grade.

    In fact, he was able to point us to a then recent J. Chem. Ed. article (DOI: 10.1021/ed040p358) in which the analysis of the second order NMR spectra of varying mixtures of benzyl alcohol and acetone was described. He got about 3 volunteers, and we set about developing an experiment. I latched on to the AB2 spin analysis, from which one can extract the JBB’ and JAB coupling constants, then hunted around for anyone in the department who could help. In fact the chap who ran the departmental NMR service (on a Varian HA100 spectrometer) had developed a side line in computer programming and computer graphics, and he taught me (he did not normally see much of UGs) how to analyse the spectra and simulate their appearance. Thus I was set on the road of combining the use of computers with analysing chemical problems, which I am still doing now!

    But a month or so into our course, the instrument broke (or was broken!). A rumour spread that in fact two such instruments had been procured, but the second had gone into the laboratory of Professor Derek Barton in his research laboratory. Unable to wait for the teaching instrument to be repaired, I decided to investigate. I was pretty confident I knew how to operate it without breaking it (ah, the confidence of youth) and so started sneaking up to the 7th floor (us UGs were restricted to the 3rd floor or lower) to use his instrument. Where of course he caught me one day, and quickly established I was a mere UG. I was evicted, but I sort of sensed that he did not want to inhibit my youthful enthusiasm. I was later told that Barton himself was still learning to use NMR as a technique, but always insisted on viewing NMR spectra “upside down”, with the baseline on the top, as is still done with IR spectra. His students recounted that he tried quite hard to persuade them he fully understood the spectra, but they remained dubious.

    The lesson from that time was that students could be trusted with new and very expensive instruments, to the extent of actually developing the very experiments that we were supposed to be learning from. It was a journey into the unknown, and the lessons from that one experience has stayed with me for life!

  2. Henry Rzepa says:

    Here is a second story from my undergraduate years, this time taking place in the 2nd year organic chemistry laboratory. Fume cupboards were rare in those days and a lot of the experiments were carried out on open benches. Vacuum distillations required a “trolley pump” to be wheeled up to your allocated bench and attached to your apparatus (which in those days was not glass jointed but used holes drilled in rubber bungs to connect components). To prevent noxious organic vapours being vented into the open laboratory, a liquid nitrogen trap was used.

    At the end of the day, one had to empty the dewar of nitrogen, since leaving it in place would invariably collect liquid oxygen once the vacuum was released and so risk an explosion. This was the daily ritual at ~17.00. The nitrogen was not poured into the basin, but into a drainage channel which ran the length of the laboratory down the middle of the benches. This channel was covered with a metal grid with ventilation holes. And so at around 17.00 I released my vacuum and started to pour the nitrogen down this channel. As I was about to do so, I spotted two plumbers standing at the far length of the laboratory, perhaps 30m away. So it was with the expertise of a ten-pin bowler that I poured my nitrogen, hoping it would reach the unsuspecting plumbers. Understand that this channel also had water in it, so as the nitrogen rushed along, it raised impressive white vapours as it went which spouted out of the ventilation holes.

    I watched the plumbers and indeed they soon noticed this locomotive of vapours rushing towards them. It became apparent that they had never seen anything like it, and these grown (and quite large and powerful) men dropped their tools and ran for their lives, with really quite interesting expressions on their faces.

    I also quickly realised that it would not do for me to exhibit too much (nay any) enjoyment of their predicament. I quickly removed myself from the laboratory in the opposite direction to the plumbers.

    None of this could possibly happen nowadays of course.

  3. Henry Rzepa says:

    Here I discuss my recollection of what are nowadays called “course materials” and what was then referred to as “lecture notes”. Attending my first university lecture in 1968, I soon appreciated that I would have to hone some special skills. No handouts or other printed materials were then available; the technology of duplicating a set of notes possibly prepared the night before to give to ~70 students the following morning simply did not then exist in the department.

    A particular shock was the need to rapidly and accurately transcribe chemical structures from the blackboard where they were chalked up by the lecturer into one’s own notes. You quickly gained the skill of abstracting the structure into structural fragments, which would be reassembled on your own handwritten notes with real-time error checking of properties such as valencies and (this a particularly hard skill to learn) stereochemistry. If any errors remained, one would then try to eliminate them by transcribing the rough and ready notes written during the lecture into a clean version for future revision. In my case, this transcription was in fact my method of revising for the exam, done about two weeks beforehand. So you had to learn how to absorb the essential semantics of what you were listening to; it certainly kept you awake and prevented your attention from wandering.

    Gradually, starting around the mid 1970s, “handouts” did start to appear, and so the need to assiduously concentrate on what the lecturer was saying gradually decreased. It is so different now of course, with VLNs, Panopto lecture recordings, etc. Lectures now seem sometimes to have turned into an opportunity for students to organise their day socially, check out the football results, and who knows what else!

  4. Henry Rzepa says:

    Here is a recollection of the ChemSoc Dinner. In 1968, university dinners were on their way out; I think only the physics and chemistry departments held them for what was then called “freshers” (first year students). The arrangement was that each first year was paired as the guest of a second year student. Dinner was at a wooden table arranged in a large square, seating perhaps 120 people, with each fresher flanked by two second years.

    The food itself itself was unmemorable; the only part I recollect was the final toasts. The most important of these was offered by the ChemSoc President, who was probably a final year student. The ceremony consisted of a large cup brought in, containing several litres of beer. It was passed around the table, and each student was invited to take a gulp of the contents before passing it on to the next person. Of course as a fresher, one consulted the 2nd year sitting next to you for advice. They, very conspiratorially, would tell you to pretend to take a sip. They had heard that tradition was that prior to the cup being brought into the hall, the ChemSoc president would take the opportunity to urinate into it first. So, as the cup was passed around, the first few freshers would take a large gulp of liquid, but as the message spread, the gulps seemed to become more and more hesitant, accompanied by many titters from the second year students. Just before it reached the president, no-one seemed to be drinking! He (it tended to be a he in those days, only about 10% of freshers were female) finally received the flagon and of course proceed to take a vast refreshing drink of the contents as their reward. Invariably all the freshers wondered what on earth was going on.

    To which I might add that the dinner was probably followed by a visit to the student union bar. This had an impressive large yard of ale displayed behind the bar. Freshers were not allowed to drink from it; one might normally try by about one’s final year. It contains 1.4 litres of beer when filled, which has to be drunk in a single long gulp. Usually, only a proportion of the beer actually enters the mouth.

    Yes, if you are wondering that much student social life centred around alcohol, you are probably not wrong. Perhaps this was unique to the chemists? There are many other alcohol related stories that could be told, but I am not sure it would be wise to do so!

  5. Harry Kemp says:

    Hello Henry!

    I also studied Chemistry at Imperial, almost a decade later than you, 1977-50. I find it odd that some lecturers and students are easy to remember after the best part of 50 years, such as the Goodgames, Geoffrey Wilkinson, Steve Ley, and yet some have vanished from my memory. One man was an Inorganic Chemistry lecturer who was very nervous most of the time, but when he drank he was a confident and friendly man! I remember how he told us that he used to drink D2O because it changed the density of water in the brain and had similar effects to alcohol. Looking back, I hope he did well, as I suspect he was close to alcoholism.

  6. Henry Rzepa says:

    Greetings Harry. The graduating class of ’79 (76-79) are having a reunion shortly. You should organise one for your year. As for your descriptions of inorganic chemists, there is only one I can think of that would drink D2O but I will not name him here. He died at the early age of about 62 due to sudden onset of cancer and I had to take over his course at short notice! Have you read the book about the department,

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