I suppose you know that Margaret Thatcher started out as a chemist

I suppose you know that Margaret Thatcher started out as a chemist. What you may not know is that many other members of the great and good also used a training in chemistry as a springboard to fame and fortune elsewhere.  

For example, take the actress Jennifer Garner, star of the hit TV series ’Alias’, who was a straight A student in high school, excelling in chemistry. She enrolled to study chemistry in college, but switched her major to the theatre. Now she promotes anti-oxidant skin-care products - and makes a few films in Hollywood on the side. 

Flipping to the dark side, there’s Martha Stewart, the former US style guru, role model, media tycoon, billionaire and all-round goody two-shoes, who fell spectacularly from grace when she was jailed for insider dealing. Another straight A student in high school, she went to college to major in chemistry but switched to art and architectural history. 

The world of literature has always welcomed lapsed chemists. For instance, Isaac Asimov (1920-1992), one of the best-loved writers of science fiction, who will forever be remembered as the begetter of the three laws of robotics, had the complete chemistry set – BS, MA, and PhD – all from Columbia University. And in the same vein, there is Kurt Vonnegut, novelist and artist, who died in April 2007. His most famous book, Slaughterhouse 5 – a devastating condemnation of war – was made into an almost equally good film which nowadays has cult status, as indeed does Vonnegut himself. He read chemistry at Cornell but became so embroiled in editing and writing for the college newspaper that by his second year in 1943 he was on the verge of being sent down. However, he jumped before he could be pushed by enlisting in the army.  

Brilliant as Asimov and Vonnegut indubitably were, some may dismiss them as overly populist, so let me introduce Elias Canetti, who died a British citizen but was born in Bulgaria in 1905. He got the Nobel prize for literature in 1981 and died in 1994 in Switzerland, where he was buried alongside James Joyce, though you shouldn’t read too much into that. But, crucially, Canetti got a doctorate in chemistry from Vienna in 1929 before making a career in writing. Incidentally, he ticked all the boxes for a Nobel literature laureate. He had a shock of thick white hair in later life, habitually wrote not in his first language, nor his second, nor even his third, but his fourth – Joseph Conrad eat your heart out – which was German. And everything he wrote rapidly causes my eyes to glaze over. 

I could go on. Greg ’Fossilman’ Raymer, 2004 world poker champion and master of Texas hold ’em, graduated in chemistry at the University of Minnesota. John Shirley-Quirk, renowned bass baritone and perhaps the definitive interpreter of Benjamin Britten’s music, somehow managed to shoehorn a degree in chemistry from Liverpool University into his early career. Chaim Weizmann was a distinguished chemist who became first president of Israel. And delightfully, given the traditional rivalry between the two heavyweight sciences, physics Nobel laureate Eugene Wigner did his first degree in chemistry. He always said his chemistry training later helped him grasp the finer nuances of quantum mechanics. Never worked for me.  

So here is evidence, if you needed it, that a training in chemistry can lead to success in many unrelated fields. I dare say practitioners of other disciplines would make the same claim - but it’s a reminder that if we do not produce a flow of good chemists, we will not only miss them as chemists, but in all these other weird and wonderful roles to which chemists seem to gravitate and which immeasurably enrich the world we live in. 

Brian Malpass