Your letters on RSC member families, undergraduate ability and James Lovelock

A family business

This year is the 175th anniversary of the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) and its precursor societies, the Chemical Society (CS) and Royal Institute of Chemistry (RIC). I have been investigating the family with the longest continuous membership over those 175 years. With help from the RSC membership department and the library at its headquarters in Burlington House, London, I have come up with a leading contender.

L M Miall was a member of the RIC and RSC from 1944 to 1996, his uncle E F Armstrong was a member of the CS and RIC from 1903 to 1945, and his grandfather Henry Armstrong was a CS member from 1870 until 1937 – giving a total continuous family membership of 125 years and 10 months. I am aware of several other RSC chemist families – the Ramsay family, where a father and two sons had continuous membership of 100 years; and William Henry Perkin and his son William Henry Perkin Jr, who were members for a combined total of 73 years.

The Miall/Armstrong family served on the councils of the CS and the RIC for most of their 125 years of membership. Henry Armstrong served as president of the CS from 1893 to 1895, and then as vice-president (with two short breaks) until his death in 1937. According to his obituary, ‘he was probably the most constant attendant and most frequent and vigorous speaker at CS meetings’.

I challenge Chemistry World readers to come up with continuous family membership longer than 125 years – perhaps even approaching the whole of the RSC’s 175-year history.

Hamish Kidd

Cambridge, UK

Practical decline

Academics have been complaining for as long as I can remember about the decline in undergraduates’ grasp of basic chemistry. But here’s something that may be significant. When the Gatsby Foundation surveyed science staff in Russell Group universities, they found that while 29% felt that knowledge had declined over the past five years, nearly twice as many (57%) complained about declining practical skills. Maybe that’s what we should be worrying about.

John Holman CChem FRSC

University of York, UK

Poor audits risk terrorism

I read with some relief Matthew Gunther’s article on academia’s efforts in implementing long overdue solutions for efficient chemicals management. Having been involved in tackling similar challenges in an industrial environment for many years, it is hard to believe that encountering an institution that has this activity truly nailed is still a rarity, despite the numerous software products now available and regulations getting ever tighter. 

While I totally agree with the potential financial benefits highlighted in the article, the need to know what you have and where it is stretches well beyond getting optimal returns from your research funding. There are the regulatory audits required for a host of different controlled substances. The current environment we find ourselves in, with terrorist attacks commonplace across the globe, means it has never been more important to make this issue a priority. Ask yourself this question: if a terrorist device was alleged to have originated from your organisation, could you definitively account for every chemical that may have been used in its construction? This sort of threat is coming ever closer, and prevention is always better than cure.

The time for flippancy is over. Past habits of hoarding chemicals in secret cupboards must cease. We need to be able to track and account for every gram in every bottle we procure until it is exhausted or disposed of. Maintaining large local collections of ‘feral’ reagents ‘off the grid’ is no longer acceptable and may end in the ultimate wake up call for us all.

Ian Clemens FRSC

Horsham, UK

Arbitrary measures

I write in respect of a misleading graphic in your report on the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Pay and Reward Survey

The usual interpretation of a bar graph is that the heights of the bars are proportional to the quantities under consideration. However, the bar graph depicted makes the classic error of starting from some arbitrary value (without any indication thereof), rather than zero, thus greatly exaggerating the differences depicted. The two ‘coins’ for the water sector relative to four ‘coins’ for the schools sector suggest that teachers are paid at twice the median rate for researchers, whereas the numeric quantities listed show an 18% increase. This is a unfortunate error in a publication from a scientific society.

Leslie Glasser CChem FRSC

Denmark, Australia 

Chromatography peek

I always read Andrea Sella’s Classic Kit segment with great interest and find myself saying, with increasing frequency, ‘I‘ve used that!’ Such was the case with the article on James Lovelock’s detector

As a chemist working in the analytical development department of Pfizer in Sandwich, UK, in 1962, I was introduced to a prototype gas chromatograph. It consisted of a separation column encased in a condenser, was heated by refluxing acetone from a flask in a heating mantle, and contained an ionisation detector using argon as the carrier gas. The apparatus was used initially – if memory serves me correctly – to determine the amount of ethanol in a liquid preparation.

However, this equipment was soon overtaken by sophisticated capillary chromatography encased in flash metal cabinets which, for all the advantages they brought, did not produce the same surge 

of satisfaction on seeing the peaks appear on the chart from the original ‘argon’ detector apparatus.

Alan Wright CChem MRSC

Sydney, Australia