From Brian Whitefield

I sympathise with Ronald Dell over his problem with the names of pharmaceuticals (Chemistry World, March 2006, p32). Some 50 years ago, when National Service temporarily converted me from organic chemist to nurse, the nature of preparations could be easily determined from their Latinate names or, in the case of romantic sounding ones like Castellani’s paint or lotio d’Alibur, by quick reference to the British Pharmacopoeia.

A few years ago, suffering from arteritis, nephrotic syndrome and to add insult to injury, hospital acquired pneumonia, I was subjected to a battery of pharmaceuticals, some of which were to combat the side effects of other that were given to combat the side-effects etc. From the names of some an odd chemical group may be recognised but for most the name gave no indication of structure or family.

The one that intrigued me most was cyclophosphamide and having staggered to the local reference library I discovered not only its structure but that its purpose is to act as an acylating agent. On the next visit to the renal clinic I asked the consultant what it acylated and why. While he cogitated on a reply his registrar chipped in with, ’It buggers the white cells’. Who says scientists can’t communicate clearly?

B Whitefield CChem MRSC
Norwich, UK


From Roger Trigg

Ronald Dell (Chemistry World, March 2006, p32) may be surprised to learn that drugs get their generic names through a very well-regulated and internationally coordinated combination of science and creativity. The reins are held by the World Health Organization whose international nonproprietary names (INN) expert committee reacts to the requirements of manufacturers for generic names for new drug entities. 

In the early days of synthetic drugs the generic name was often a corruption of the systematic chemical name: bendroflumethiazide derives from 3-ben zyl-3,4-dihydro -6-triflu orome thyl-2H -1,2,4-benzothia diaz ine-7-sulfonamide 1,1-dioxide

In tamoxifen the prefix ’tam-’ derives from ’dimethylam ino-’, part of its chemical name. Nowadays every effort is made to create names that provide guidance to health professionals by means of a common stem for substances with similar therapeutic or pharmacological action and that are short and simple enough for common use. Thus, ACE inhibitors bear the stem -pril or -prilat, 5HT serotonin receptor antagonists use the stem -setron and fluorine-containing quinolone antibacterials, the stem -floxacin. Couple such stems with a distinctive prefix and you have a template to generate a seemingly inexhaustible supply of meaningful new drug names within each class.

Sharp-eyed TV viewers may have noticed the generic name of Herceptin, an anticancer drug much in the news recently: trastuzumab in which the suffix -mab represents ’m onoclonal a ntib ody’, of which there are currently 112 named examples, and -zumab denotes ’humanised origin’ (10 examples). The complex system devised to accommodate the many types of monoclonal antibody represents the zenith of the ’prefix/stem’ approach to generic drug nomenclature. Some of the results can be tongue-twistingly awkward (try adecatumumab) but I hope Dell can now begin to appreciate the art and science behind these names.

R B Trigg CChem FRSC
Former secretary of the BP commission nomenclature committee and former member of the WHO expert committee on INN


From Brian Malpass

Ian Carmichael challenges my identifying the poison gas in Wilfred Owen’s poem Dulce et decorum est as phosgene (Chemistry World, March 2006, p32). 

In making the attribution I was relying on a private communication. When I first read the poem at school there was a footnote to the effect that the gas referred to was believed to be either phosgene or chlorine. 

Because I had just started studying chemistry, I was intrigued by the ambiguity and decided to consult an expert, my grandfather, who had survived gas attacks in the Great War. Without hesitation, he said the gas was phosgene. I am unable to check his reasoning as he died at a ripe old age 40 odd years ago. However, I believe that although phosgene is often described as a colourless gas, it forms a greenish-yellow cloud when the liquid form is released. Incidentally, the old man, who was a pretty dour individual, was moved to tears by the poem.

And, by the way, David Richardson, who challenges my remark that Tom Lehrer’s song The elements contains the name of every single element, can stand down. The canny Lehrer, perhaps sensing future pedant attack, covered himself by concluding with the words:

These are the only ones of which the news has come to Harvard, 
And there may be many others but they haven’t been discovered.

Lehrer himself is not available for comment, having retired tragically early from satire on the grounds of unfair competition, following the award of the Nobel peace prize to Henry Kissinger in 1973.

B Malpass CChem MRSC
By email


From Bob Lowrie

It was good to learn that Humphry Davy was a poet (Chemistry World, February 2006, p80). He was himself the subject of a clerihew:

Humphry Davy
abominated gravy;
he lived in the odium
of having discovered sodium.

R S Lowrie CChem FRSC
Wheatley, Oxford, UK


From Peter Kirk

One of the many barriers to the public appreciation of science is the practice of beginning sentences with phrases like ’Scientists have discovered.....’. The public is entitled to feel that the research has been done by faceless people working on the other side of an unbridgeable gulf.

We wouldn’t expect to see ’Footballers score goals.’ or ’Singers make hit recording...’, because we are used to seeing the names of entertainers in print or hearing them on air. When, however, it comes to recording the - often more lasting - work of research workers, we come up against a reluctance to personalise.

So it was in the article about the chemistry of love (Chemistry World, February 2006, p32). It is true that the academic style of reference ’Fisher, Aron and Brown’ would not mean much to the public, and the fact that they all worked in different institutions would make a catchy location phrase equally difficult.

It must, however, be possible to break out of the ’scientists have...’ backwater and find ways of making the people who do scientific work more accessible to the public. Wilson and White of Leeds, for example, are much better known as the band the Kaiser Chiefs. Perhaps Fisher, Aron and Brown should have been presented as the Fab three.

P G Kirk CChem FRSC
York, UK


From Mike Parrott

I read with interest the article entitled Warning for science education which lamented the lack of specialist chemistry teachers at GCSE and in some cases at A-level (Chemistry World, March 2006, p8). 

While I agree that it is essential that schools have enough fully trained physical scientists, the allocation of the curriculum to science means that some hard choices have to be made. My school receives a fairly typical nine lessons a fortnight to teach dual award GCSE science. 

A three way split between the three sciences means seeing a class only three times a fortnight. Do you then choose better continuity by having only two teachers or subject specialism and long periods between lessons and classes you know less well? 

In the practical world, the role of the chemists in the department must be to support, encourage and enthuse the other members of the department with the delights of chemistry. The RSC, in producing excellent free resources for schools, is also playing its part. 

M Parrott CChem MRSC
Head of chemistry, Conyers School, Yarm, UK


From Israel Berkovitch

There was an important omission from your chemist’s guide to non-proliferation (Chemistry World, February 2006, p18). The 1968 treaty had the objectives you quoted - to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, to promote peaceful uses of nuclear energy - but it was more specific than you quoted in respect of furthering the goal of nuclear disarmament. 

This last objective was to be pursued by negotiations in good faith towards nuclear disarmament leading to the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons. So it laid an obligation on existing nuclear powers which they have disregarded. The US has increased its nuclear arsenal, the UK is discussing renewing and extending its nuclear arsenal and there are reports of France doing the same. 

Follow-up conferences have made no progress in reducing the numbers of nuclear weapons so that almost 40 years after the signing of the treaty, it has been repeatedly breached by the existing nuclear powers. 

I Berkovitch FRSC
Hemel Hempstead, UK


From William Buckland

Why does P G Urben expect to find depleted oxygen levels at explosion sites? (Chemistry World, February 2006, p31)

The detonation of nitroglycerin or ammonium nitrate would dilute oxygen concentrations by the nitrogen, carbon dioxide and water vapour produced but I doubt this would be significant, except perhaps during something as large as the Beaumont, Texas, US, explosion.

Indeed, ammonium nitrate commonly has fuel oil added to use the excess oxygen produced during decomposition. 

W E D Buckland CChem MRS C
Kentucky, US


From Brian Darvell

There is considerable concern over mercury spillage and clean-up. There are many recommendations as to how to proceed and a number of products are on the market for use in this context: sulfur powder, zinc powder and sulfamic acid, sodium thiosulfate and EDTA, silver nitrate on silica, calcium polysulfide, potassium peroxymonosulfate...

I am trying to write some teaching material on the topic and would like to back up remarks with evidence. However, I am having extraordinary difficulty in finding primary literature.

I should like to take advantage of what must be a vast reservoir of knowledge in the readership: where is the evidence for any of this? where are the rates discussed? where are the comparisons of efficacy? Surely it cannot all be anecdotal. Can anybody help?

B Darvell CChem FRSC
The University of Hong Kong


From R W Hoffmann

The March issue of Chemistry World contained an article on the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia (p7). Meanwhile the Flashback section of the magazine (p84) states that Robert Bunsen invented the Bunsen burner. You should check this statement using Wikipedia.

R W Hoffmann MRSC

Marburg, Germany

Wikipedia states that:  
A common misconception is that the Bunsen burner was invented by Robert Wilhelm Bunsen but although it is named after him, it is actually an improvement made in 1855 by his laboratory assistant, Peter Desdega, of an earlier design by Michael Faraday.