In every issue of RSC News, I look at the 'deaths' column

In every issue of RSC News, I look at the ’deaths’ column. This is not merely to check that I am not in it, though Mark Twain once wrote to an American newspaper to protest that ’reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated’. I am interested in the ’going rate’ for the chemical life-span. In view of the hazards of the profession, it might be shorter than average. 

Recently I put this personal interest on a broader mathematical footing. I compared death statistics in 14 RSC News columns, with those published by the government for 2003. Both showed a great spread in the age of life. My RSC sample was not big enough for detailed comparisons; but RSC members seemed to have a slight edge over the general population. Their most common age of death was about 82, compared to about 80 for typical Britons. There was no obvious advantage to high academic rank. Being a doctor or a professor did not seem to increase your longevity, though acquiring an FRSC perhaps gave you an extra year or so compared to the fate of sticking with an MRSC. 

Now rank may be important. It has been claimed that bosses in the civil service are healthier that those beneath them; the exercise of authority is medically good for you. By contrast, health risks seem to be greater a little way down the command chain. There, you must try to enforce the absurd dreams of your boss upon on your recalcitrant underlings. The resulting medical stress may be bad for you. (I once had a friend who went into the Army. He rapidly decided that in such a rigid hierarchy there were only two tolerable positions. One was right at the top and the other was right at the bottom. He therefore sank to the lowest position and refused to be promoted.) But chemists seem not to show much of a ’rank effect’. They are probably less hierarchically organised than the army or the civil service. Even so, the RSC death statistics are encouraging. Being a chemist is clearly not bad for your health. 

More intriguing still, those long-lived chemists grew up well before the absurdities of chemophobia. As youngsters they painted the dog’s face with phosphorus solution to make it glow, they made gunpowder or worse, their fingers were stained yellow with nitric acid, they breathed hydrogen sulfide, they played with mercury, they washed grease off their hands with benzene. They were not frightened by any of the forms of matter. Yet these days many people have hopes and fears that make no chemical sense at all. It is easy to make people frightened of trivially small amounts of some chemical - recall the Perrier water scandal, in which that pointless beverage was denounced for containing 25 parts per billion of benzene! It was a triumph of analytical chemistry to detect such a tiny amount at all. Conversely, many people carefully take ’dietary supplements’ containing a few milligrams of some trace element: zinc, say, or selenium, when no modern varied diet could possibly be without such elements.  

The careless young chemists who played with phosphorus and mercury gained much more in knowledge and familiarity with wicked chemicals than they ever lost in exposure to them. Yet chemophobia is gaining ground. These days you can get a degree in zoology without ever touching an animal; in the same way it will soon be possible to get a degree in chemistry without ever encountering a chemical.  

A university I know has an ominously entitled ’dry lab’ in which students can study wicked chemicals safely on the computer screen. The trend may spread. Students with no chemical experience at all, but skilled in computer trickery and box-ticking, will get chemical degrees. Will the death-rate statistics then show any advantage in joining the RSC?