Monday, February 26, 2007

Top 5 chemists who died in really lousy ways

Chemgeek said in a comment here about Lavoisier that he could be included in the 'Top 5 dead chemists who died in really lousy ways'. A nice Top 5 to do I thought, so here we go. (Lavoisier was already number one in the Top 5 executed chemists so I decided not to include him.)

1) Ernest Julius Cohen (1869-1944) The Dutch physical chemist Cohen studied under Arrhenius, Moissan and wrote his thesis for a doctorate under J.H. van 't Hoff. Chemistry was a 'family-disease', his father Jacques was a chemist who had studied under Liebig and Bunsen. In 1901 Cohen was appointed extraordinary Professor of Chemistry at the University of Amsterdam, and Professor of Inorganic and General Chemistry at the university of Utrecht in 1902. He was the first president of IUPAC. He worked on allotropy of metals (worked out the chemistry of tin pest), photographic chemistry, electrochemistry and he wrote on science history.

In 1941 Cohen's property was seized by the German occupier and became a house for German officers. Friendly neighbors took him and his wife into their house. After May 1942 he had to wear the yellow star of David to show that he was a Jew. In 1943 he wanted to visit the laboratory but was arrested and taken prisoner because 'he wanted to enter a public building'. Cohen was taken to the concentration camp Vught. The Council of the Dutch Chemical Society approached the S.S. authorities leading to Cohen's release. Despite the advice of friends, Cohen refused to go into hiding, because 'he had done nothing wrong'. He was arrested again on Febuary 28 1944, and taken to concentration camp Westerbork. The efforts of his friends to have him released were in vain. On March 3 he was transported to Auschwitz. About 2 days later he died there in a Nazi gas chamber.

2) Thomas Midgley (1889-1944)
Chemist and mechanical engineer Midgely developed TEL additive to petrol and CFC's as refrigerants. His work on TEL resulted in lead poisoning, but he recovered. Polio disabled him in 1940. He designed a device with strings and pulleys to lift him from his bed. On November 2 1944 he was strangled by this machine.

3) Pierre Curie (1859–1906)
After a luch meeting on April 19, 1906 Pierre crosses Rue Dauphine in Paris during heavy snowfall. He was intercepted by a horse-drawn wagon with a heavy load of military supplies. Pierre's skull was crushed under the carriage wheel.

4) Karen Wetterhahn (1949-1997)
Professor of chemistry at Dartmouth College, Wetterhahn, spilled some dimethylmercury on her latex gloves on August 14, 1996. Five months later she began to have troubles with her speach and sense of balance. It turned out that the dimethylmercury had diffused through the gloves, and caused mercury poisining. she slipped into a coma and died June 8, 1997.

5) Dominique Burget (1965-2006)
A pressure vessel with ethene exploded in a research building of the Ecole Nationale Supérieure de Chimie de Mulhouse, on March 24, 2006. Burget was working in a lab above, and was killed.

9 comments:

Naffer said...

A grad student in my lab has done some organomercury work, and it seems like the story of Karen Wetterhahn gets brought up at every talk he's given.

Dimethylmercury makes such a spectactular Hg NMR standard though.

Chemgeek said...

This is a superb list. I'm sure there are many other similar cautionary tales out there.

dra said...

I've been listening to the story of Wetterhahn and dimethylmercury circulate around undergraduates for the past few years (here at UF), as an ooo-ahhh story. slight changes have made its way into the story now and apparently the rumor mill has it as a former UF prof. too bad i won't be around for next years version

Cunning linguist said...

Did she also have problems with her spelling?

..........'speach'........

een of andere vent said...

You may think I have that problem, but there is a chance that I speak your language much better than you speak mine.

Liquidcarbon said...

I can't think of a more lousy way to die than falling in sulfuric acid reservoir. This is how Russian chemist Chichibabin's daughter died on her industry practice in 1920s. The workers around were polite enough to wait for the medics instead of immediately taking her clothes away and give her a shower. I really don't know how come, but it is said that she could have survived. Sulfuric acid with its density must be so easy to swim in...

een of andere vent said...

Wow, missed that one. A very nice lousy way indeed.

gaussling said...

Great post! I have to say that the sulfuric acid bath is pretty horrific.

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