Year by year chemistry students explore the diverse history of chlorine

An element of controversy: the life of chlorine in science, medicine, technology and war 

Hasok Chang and Catherine Jackson (eds) 

Fleet, Hampshire, UK: British Society for the History of Science 2007 | 406pp | ?22.00 (SB) ISBN 9780906450017 

Reviewed by Mary Daniells

This book results from an innovative teaching model developed by Hasok Chang at the Department of science and technology studies at University College London. Undergraduate students researched a topic beyond the constraints of a rigid curriculum and produced some original knowledge. The course was planned to encourage students to work together and share information when researching closely related topics; it was also hoped that the students might develop a taste for postgraduate research. 

The history of chlorine was chosen as a topic because it could be explored from different viewpoints and therefore potentially interest a variety of students. The undergraduates were encouraged to build on the work of previous students, and this book brings together the results of 11 projects from the course by successive generations of students since 2000. 

In addition to the well-known use of chlorine in war as the first major chemical weapon, the projects carried out included the development of chlorine bleaching and chlorine disinfection in the 18th and 19th centuries and the detection of solar neutrinos using chlorine at the Homestake Mine experiment in the 1960s. 

One student researched the use of chlorine chambers for treatment of influenza in the US during the 1920s - work which the students found to have been supported by the US Chemical Warfare Service so that covert research of chemical warfare could continue. The students discovered that US President Calvin Coolidge had undertaken a trial run of the chlorine chambers with his wife and reported his symptoms of influenza ’to be much improved!’ 

The book shows how chlorine’s highly reactive chemical character has resulted in its often controversial practical applications. It is to be recommended to show how teaching and research can be integrated and how students can successfully explore multidisciplinary topics, including history, chemistry, physics, philosophy and politics.