Two influential textbooks – “Mee” and “Mellor”.

I am a member of the  Royal Society of  Chemistry’s Historical group. Amongst other activities, it publishes two editions of a newsletter each year for its members. A new theme was recently launched asking for contributions on the topic of  “two influential books” and shortly to appear in the winter 2023 edition will be the following recollections by myself (reprinted here with permission).

Two influential books

  1. Practical Organic Chemistry by A. J. Mee, J. M. Dent and Sons, 1959 (”Mee”)
  2. Modern Inorganic Chemistry by G. D. Parks and J. W. Mellor, Longmans, 1946 (”Mellor”)

My connection with both these books goes back to around 1962 and is set in a particular context. Being an only child, I played extensively with my two cousins who lived nearby. Their mother had a science degree and was in fact the owner of the inorganic text. When my aunt decided to emigrate to Canada in that year along with my cousins, she left her textbooks with my parents, perhaps in the very prescient anticipation that I would discover and read them. They were stored deep inside in the cupboard under the stairs. I was forever crawling into small spaces – a habit that had often caused consternation to my parents even at the age of three – and it was there I discovered the Mellor one day. It is not the kind of book that a twelve-year-old would normally start reading, but my parents had noted that I was missing my cousins and had decided to purchase a chemistry set for me as some form of distraction. There was something of a disconnect of course between all the fascinating compounds described in the Mellor text, and the relatively small range of chemicals in the boxset. The disconnect was made worse since I was particularly fascinated by the explosive and dangerous compounds described in the Mellor. Chlorine heptoxide (p 507) is just one example that attracted me particularly, including its explosive nature. Nitrogen tri-iodide (p 401) is of course far more famous and therein lie several more stories.[1]
Mellor is scattered with diagrams of the apparatus used to prepare the compounds described, but I have no idea why as a 12-year-old I found all this so fascinating! Indeed I read about almost any oxide avidly- especially if it was coloured. So, after a few days, and with all the chemicals in the set exhausted, I needed to find replacements.

I have no recollection about how I located A. N. Beck and Sons in Stoke Newington (no Google in those days of course), but they were a regular high street pharmacist who happened to have a basement where they would sell often exotic chemicals to 12-year-old boys and girls. None of this bears thinking about nowadays of course! Stoke Newington was a lengthy bus ride away from where we lived in southeast London, but I happily ventured on my own on the 72 bus and started returning not only with a new batch of chemicals but also the glassware needed to perform ”proper” experiments. Imagine my delight when I got a water pump and was able to do reduced pressure distillations. All this in a small (unventilated) annex to the kitchen in the house, the use of which my parents just about tolerated. At least until the day that I mixed ethanol with a mixture of sulfuric and nitric acids and sprayed a rather nice Jackson Pollock brown pattern onto the kitchen ceiling. My punishment for doing this was learning how to repaint the ceiling – I have been none too fond of painting ceilings ever since. I was now able to explore a few more of the compounds mentioned in the Mellor text, which I continued to absorb avidly. But soon I realised that there was much more to chemistry than described in Mellor.

A. N. Beck and Sons not only sold chemicals but also had a few books for purchase and that is how one day I went home clutching A. J. Mee’s text on practical organic chemistry. That contained 297 experiments, many of which could be conducted in my new home laboratory. I started that book with dyes, which magically transform entirely colourless compounds into startingly bright reds and yellows and less often blues and greens. Indeed, at age 17 when I was starting my university course applications, I even applied to the colour chemistry course at Leeds. It is my regret that during this period, I never attempted the synthesis of mauveine, a compound that has a very local flavour since the site of the factory that its discoverer Perkin built to manufacture it is just down the road from where we now live.[2] After several years, I had ticked around half of the experiments in Mee and saved not a few of the final products in sealed glass specimen tubes. Dinitrogen tetroxide is a memorable sample from that period, since it is not easy to seal a compound that boils at 22 C.

I should mention one interesting characteristic of the experiments described in Mee – the propensity to use large quantities of compounds. A typical experiment could use up to 10-50 g of material. As someone with a limited budget (approximately half of which was now being spent on attending football matches), I soon realised that a ten-fold reduction in quantities did not lessen the enjoyment of the preparation. Nowadays in some taught laboratories, the quantities are often measured in mg! The preparation of benzidine was an exception, involving 2g of this highly carcinogenic species and which I followed Mee to the letter. I still have nightmares about my experiments with this species and the quantity of it I produced – the Mee text does not mention the toxicity.

Just to balance things out, I should mention that I also (tried to) read a theoretical chemistry text by J. W. Linnet which contained no home experiments to perform but probably sowed the seeds for my subsequent career years later.

By the time I started my university course in 1968, I was able to shut down my home laboratory (much to the relief of both parents) and continued in a somewhat safer university laboratory. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the six years or so of practical experience I already had, I was delighted to win a prize for practical chemistry in my final year. By this stage of course, the standard inorganic texts were books by Cotton and Wilkinson and Vogel’s practical organic chemistry – both in a very different style from my two selections above. I continued making molecules for my three years of PhD during the period 1971-74 – mainly sterically hindered indoles and indolinones – and it was these final syntheses that set me on my subsequent career of modelling reactions using quantum mechanics – a story told elsewhere.[3] But without doubt, both the Mellor and the Mee books played a crucial role in directing me along this long and winding path.

In 2014, some fifty years after reading my two highlighted books, I decided to find out if anyone else had similar experiences and I posted about them on my blog.[4] To my delight 52 responses have been received to date and perhaps this newsletter article might encourage a few more? It turns out I was not alone. I even got one response from Hillary Beck Grant, whose father Kingsley Beck was the son of Albert Neve Beck. She vividly remembers the smell in the basement where two women did all the bottling, packing and dispatching. Sounds very similar to my own kitchen annex!

J. W. Linnett, The Electronic Structure of Molecules: A New Approach. 1964, Methuen.


  1. H. Rzepa, "Halogen bonds 3: “Nitrogen tri-iodide”", 2014.
  2. H. Rzepa, "William Henry Perkin: The site of the factory and the grave.", 2013.
  3. H.S. Rzepa, "The Long and Winding Road towards FAIR Data as an Integral Component of the Computational Modelling and Dissemination of Chemistry", Israel Journal of Chemistry, vol. 62, 2021.
  4. H. Rzepa, "Chemistry in the early 1960s: a reminiscence.", 2014.

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