Onion cure-all

From Peter Rowland

C L Reid’s onion-slice cure for stings (Chemistry World, March 2004, p24) by hymenoptera is probable and important. When onion cells are damaged, the enzyme lachrymatory-factor synthase decomposes S-1-propenylcysteine-sulphoxide to give the volatile propanthial-S-oxide. In contact with aqueous tissue this hydrolyses to give propanol, sulphuric acid and hydrogen sulphide (a painful mix in the eye). It seems likely that in this highly reactive chemical chain at least one moiety might react with and render harmless key components in wasp venom.

The importance is firstly medical. People can die from reactions to wasp stings and further work may lead to a sure-fire cure-in-a-bottle. Secondly there would then be no need to impair the ecosystem by whole-sale destruction of wasps’ nests.

There’s a sting in the tail: the ordinary onion as a cure might be doomed. Genetically engineered onions free of lachrymatory-factor synthase have already been mooted.

P R Rowland CChem FRSC
London, UK


  1. S Imai et al  Nature, 2002, 419, 685
  2. T Clarke, Nature Science Update, 17 October 2002
  3. Science News Online, 2002, 162, 244


Radical funding

From Graeme Jones

While looking for information on the RSC website I came across the RSC press release: A rethink is needed on university funding for chemistry issued 03/02/04. I quote, ’Perhaps some sort of differential funding is in order, where students who have chosen to take chemistry as a vocational subject and thus require more extensive lab experience attract higher rates of funding to their departments…

…This case for differential funding might appear to be radical but we do believe that there is a very real case for changing the approach. This could be the answer to maintaining a high number of students - that is the real issue, not the number of departments.’

I agree your case for differential funding is quite radical and I don’t recall members being consulted on it nor of hearing reports that RSC Council or the President had even suggested it so why are you? Please correct me if I am wrong and if I am not please withdraw this press release.

Secondly, I am outraged by the final comment of this article. Of course the number of chemistry departments matters, take them away and they will be gone for ever along with the potential students. The RSC is foolish if it thinks that by reducing the number of chemistry departments the number of chemistry undergraduates will go up. Just look at the evidence; 4100 enrollments in 1993 and fewer than 2900 in 2001 corresponding with a 27 per cent reduction in the number of chemistry units of assessment in the RAE. Fewer departments = Fewer undergraduates = Fewer members of the RSC = Goodbye RSC.

I urge President and Council to wake up and stand up for chemistry.

G R Jones CChem FRSC
Keele University, UK

Neville Reed, RSC Communications Manager replies  The media release - aimed at journalists - was a response to a negative article by Roger Highfield published in the Daily Telegraph citing the possible demise of chemistry in UK universities. In order to move away from the negative article and allow the RSC to put its case for increased support, the response called for a debate on the increased level of funds needed for practical based subjects, especially the chemical sciences. A number of universities have successful chemical science teaching in non-chemistry departments hence the view that the number of departments may not be the key issue, but that number of students studying the chemical sciences is. Only a strong source of chemical science teaching is capable of underpinning successful science faculties: a point made to Nature, The Guardian and others who picked up on the release. This was followed up in the President’s article in the Telegraph. Rest assured the RSC is actively putting the case for increased support for UK chemical sciences with government, civil servants and funding agencies.


Where is the chemistry?

From Rob Carroll

While I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate the RSC on its continued and successful goal of improving the public perception of science, and chemistry in particular, I would also like to add to Barrie Mellor’s comments in the March issue of CW. The RSC is at heart a society for chemists and I think that as a society we tend to forget this key fact, because of the desire to appeal to a broad spectrum of people. There are many fine publications available to those in the biological sectors of science, and indeed magazines such as New Scientist available to people who may not be directly involved in the scientific community, but who enjoy the subject. We as chemists however, are much more limited in our choice of armchair reading material. I find it quite disappointing when each month I open the pages of our magazine only to find a huge proportion of it dedicated to sciences other than chemistry, and the content pitched at a level for (in my opinion) a non-scientific audience. I have a burning desire to open my mind to new topics, and read interesting, well written articles on a broad range of subjects - chemical biology, (in)organic chemistry, organometallic chemistry, chemical engineering, but please remember the key word - chemistry!

R Carroll MRSC
By e-mail


There’s more to chemistry

From Stephen Neidle

There was a certain irony in reading Barrie Mellor’s antagonism (Chemistry World, March 2004, p22) to the number of articles on ’biochemistry and pharmacy’ in Chemistry World, especially in the February issue, when in the same issue the sad closure of yet another chemistry department was highlighted. The reality is that the biological and pharmaceutical sciences are widely perceived to be some of the liveliest and most important areas in science, and major advances continue to occur at a fast and furious rate. That’s precisely what attracts and excites students, to an extent that ’classical’ chemistry does not at present - as eloquently expressed in the letter in the March issue from a student, Oliver Beckingham. Fortunately many chemists (and the RSC) see all this as an opportunity and not a threat, and the interface between chemistry and the life sciences is now an exciting place to be, both in industry and academia. There is an increasing realisation that exploitation of the many advances in medical and biological sciences over the past 50 years, both in health and economic terms, will require major contributions from chemists who have real understanding of biology. Maybe reading the stimulating mix of articles in Chemistry World will help to convince students (and their elders) that the chemical sciences, in their broadest sense, still have much to offer. 

Stephen Neidle CChem FRSC
London, UK


One in the eye for carrots

From Barrie Skelcher

I don’t know whether carrots do help people see in the dark but readers might be interested in my personal experience with them.

Years ago my student career nearly came to an abrupt end because of a problem with my eyes. They became so sore and itchy that it became impossible to read for any length of time. I consulted an optician who could find nothing significantly wrong with my eyesight but prescribed a pair of glasses for some minor correction. They made not the slightest difference.

Desperate to carry on with my studies I cut out all non-essential reading. No newspapers, no magazines, no cinema visits (TV had not then arrived), and anything else involving eye work. The optician had another go giving me the finest correction that he was able to make. Still there was no improvement and I was on the point of giving up when I remembered the war time story. I started to eat one or two raw carrots each day. Within a week I was reading in comfort, the problem had gone. That was 50 years ago and ever since I have kept up with the odd raw carrot. Not two a week but if I neglect them altogether the itchy eye syndrome returns.

B Skelcher CChem MRSC
By e-mail



From P R Skidmore

I read with interest the recent articles by Sir Harry Kroto (Daily Telegraph 18 Feb) and Simon Campbell (RSC News Jan 2004) and it occurs to me that over-frequent repetition of the statement that it is the Society’s intention to become Europe’s leading organisation for chemical sciences is not the best way to win friends and influence people. In fact, as far as our European colleagues are concerned it may well be, to say the least, counter productive.

By all means let us become the premier organisation for advancing the chemical sciences in Europe but not if all this does is induce a warm glow of self-satisfaction in members of the executive.

The ’single voice’ of the Anglo/European Society for Matters Vaguely Scientific muttering in the wings will not be heard, or if it is, it will be ignored. However, a couple of dozen good strong voices singing centre stage from the same sheet will certainly be heard in Brussels; and Strasbourg; and London, Paris, Rome, Berlin etc etc etc. Let us put more effort into strengthening the EU’s national chemical societies, particularly in the new Eastern European entrants, so that we can speak with many united voices in Brussels and from individual strength to national governments (which are likely to have some say in university funding for the foreseeable future), whilst continuing to promote and protect the British chemical industry at home, in Europe, and world wide. Remember that without a chemical industry there will be no incentive for government to fund chemistry departments.

I should also like to take issue with Sir Harry over his statement that ’Undergraduate chemistry courses are a waste of time in teaching-only institutions.’ This sir, with respect, is a complete nonsense. During the third quarter of the last century most of industry (including multi-national research centres) and a great deal of academia was staffed by excellent chemists who learned both the art and science of chemistry in first class polytechnics (it was easier to get a job with HNC than it was with a good honours degree and not much experience). Then along came a great big gravy train labelled University Grants so everybody climbed on board and because there were more places than people to fill them we got the ’dumbed down’ soft options that took people away from chemistry.

P R Skidmore CChem FRSC
Essex, UK

Neville Reed, RSC Communications Manager replies Many of the decisions affecting the future of the chemical sciences are made at the European level and this is reflected in the RSC’s strategy:we seek to increase RSC influence in EU institutions, European networks and with other chemical science bodies. The RSC is a strong supporter of the Federation of European Chemical Societies and has close working relationships with many of the other European chemical societies including those in Germany, Holland and France among others. We recognise the need for partnerships and collaborative working: both of which are core parts of the RSC strategy.