As an octogenarian, I was recently pondering some of the more interesting facets of my life in the field of metals chemistry.

As an octogenarian, I was recently pondering some of the more interesting facets of my life in the field of metals chemistry. This took me back to the wartime years in London when, as a part time student in pursuit of my AIC (Associate of the Institute of Chemistry) as it was then, I would leave work after a long day in the lab and travel to evening college where I would put in four hours of study (they always left the lecture until last so that we couldn’t leave early), five nights a week, arriving home at around 11 pm. More often than not, the air-raids would disturb one’s sleep and it was back to work again all too soon. Don’t the modern generation of students have a tough time by comparison?

Despite all this, I still found time to use my chemical knowledge to supplement some of the shortages of the time. I recall formulating various essentials for my girlfriend (later to become my wife, not, I hope, just out of gratitude) such as nail varnish in a variety of colours, hair shampoo, lipstick, and face powder etc, all much to the envy of her friends who were deprived of such luxuries.

I remember vividly, the occasion when the engine of a flying bomb cut out overhead and we all dived instinctively under the bench only to be confronted with a row of Winchesters of acid on a shelf below. What to do - stay put and risk a horrible fate? We hurriedly decided that we might just have time to try another bench on the other side of the lab. The ensuing explosion was just far enough away to shake the Winchesters to the edge of the shelf but such was life in wartime London.

On a brighter note, we were asked to do a bit of research on why tea made from water boiled in aluminium kettles had a bluish tinge. We were sent a hundredweight of tea from the Ministry of Food for experimental purposes. The answer, of course, was that most aluminium-ware at the time was recycled scrap (all the decent stuff went into aircraft) and contained quite a lot of iron, which reacted with the tannin. Most of us had no need to use our tea ration for the rest of the war!

There was also the occasion when we were asked to investigate why some cymbals failed to ’ring’ properly when struck - a real wartime priority. The reason was that the brass alloy contained a lot of lead, resulting in a dead sound. Fortunately, we were not sent a hundredweight of those but I think that several radio bands were grateful to find out why they sounded so awful.

A more serious event concerned a new military camp somewhere in Norfolk where many men went down with stomach trouble. On analysing the camp water, it was again found that lead was the culprit. A newly laid main consisted of over a mile of lead pipe, and this in a soft water area! Happily, the problem was resolved very quickly and appropriate detoxification treatment applied to the personnel to forestall any long-term harm. At least we hope so.

Many other investigations were carried out during those eventful years, always with a great sense of purpose and urgency. Often, due to their confidential nature, we juniors had no idea what was behind the problems and it was only after the war that their significance became apparent.

For me now, practical chemistry is limited to applying the appropriate amount of low sodium salt to my salad and washing it down with the recommended daily dose of red wine. Even the latter has to be balanced against the occasional twinge of gout. For my arthritic knees, I still await a miracle cure, short of amputation that is, but I fear that the time factor for research to come up with something effective is way beyond my stint on this planet, even if the kidneys were up to it. Then there is the shingles pain, which after three years has defeated all attempts to suppress it. Ah! I hear you say, have you tried the new miracle drug Gabapentin? Yes I have but the effect on my sense of balance means that I tend to stagger about as if a little tipsy, exacerbated by my already wobbly knees (no it is not the red wine).