The Chemical Educator, Vol. 7, No. 3, S1430-4171(02)03567-8, 10.1007/s00897020567a, © 2002 Springer-Verlag New York, Inc.
The 13th Element: The Sordid Tale of Murder, Fire, and Phosphorus. By John Emsley. John Wiley & Sons: New York, Chichester, England, 2000; Illustrations. viii + 327 pp. 14.1 ´ 20.4 cm. $24.95 (USA); $38.95 (Canada). ISBN 0-471-39455-6; published in the UK as: The Shocking History of Phosphorus: A Biography of the Devil’s Element. Macmillan Publishers, Ltd.: London, England, 2000. £12.99. ISBN 0-333-76638-5.
George B. Kauffman, California State University, Fresno, firstname.lastname@example.org
I first realized the importance of phosphorus when our biology teacher introduced us to the mnemonic acronym NCHSOP (New Central High School of Philadelphia) for the symbols of the primary elements of protoplasm—the stuff of life (Although my school was the second oldest public school in the United States, being antedated only by the Boston Latin School, it had just moved to a new building). In a modern, more sophisticated biochemical view, phosphorus is a key component of living things, being a constituent of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) and ATP (adenosine triphosphate). Also underscoring the central position of phosphorus in plant life is the triadic fertilizer formulation expressing the analytical percentage by weight of the three major nutrients familiar to all gardeners (N—total ammoniacal nitrogen; P—available phosphoric acid expressed as P2O5; and K—soluble potash expressed as K2 O).
Phosphorus was the thirteenth element to be discovered; it was preceded by the elements known to the ancients—carbon, sulfur, copper, silver, gold, iron, tin, mercury, and lead and the later discovered antimony, arsenic, and bismuth. John Emsley, the former longtime chemistry lecturer at the University of London, New Scientist magazine editor, and science writer in residence at Imperial College, London, now an award-winning freelance writer and science writer in residence at Cambridge University (since 1997), has made use of triskadekaphobia (fear of the number thirteen) in his title to lend a sinister aspect to his “first biography” of this eerily luminescent element. His earlier books (e.g., Molecules at an Exhibition: Portraits of Intriguing Materials in Everyday Life, Kauffman, G. B.; Kauffman, L M. The Chemical Educator 1998, 3(6), S1430-4171(98)06266-2 (December 1, 1998), 3 pp., DOI 10.1007/s00897980266a) have received favorable reviews.
Emsley, whose most recent honors include the 1995 Rhône–Poulenc Prize for best science book of the year, the Royal Society of Chemistry tertiary chemical education award “for making chemistry popular to a wider public both nationally and internationally,” is eminently qualified to write such a book, for he received his PhD degree in phosphorus chemistry (1963) from the University of Manchester. While collecting material for a book (Emsley, J.; Hall, D. The Chemistry of Phosphorus; Harper & Row: London, 1976), he encountered numerous human-interest stories unsuitable for an academic textbook but ideal for a popular-science article, which he wrote for the New Scientist. This led to a talk with demonstrations for the “Molecule Theatre,” as part of a series of public lectures organized by Sir Bernard and Lady Miles. Emsley received many invitations to repeat the talk, which he transformed into a script for a radio program, “The Shocking History of Phosphorus” (the title for the British edition of the book under review). This program was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in September, 1992 and won a Glaxo Award for popular science broadcasting and a Sony Award for memorable radio programs. During all these lectures and programs Emsley accumulated many of the phosphorus anecdotes that make this book, his seventh, so entertaining, engaging, and fascinating.
In an eminently readable account intended for the general reader, but suitable for the scientist as well, Emsley presents in 14 chapters the 300-year history of the element whose name is derived from the Greek words meaning “bringing light,” with an emphasis on curious, bizarre, and horrific events and in the context of its multifaceted role in human history. He begins his account with Hamburg alchemist Hennig Brandt’s 1669 isolation of phosphorus from urine (no mean feat; as an adolescent and later with my students I unsuccessfully tried to duplicate the procedure). Hoping that the substance might be the long-sought philosopher’s stone, Brandt kept his discovery secret for half a dozen years. The toxic substance was soon touted as an aphrodisiac and a panacea for all sorts of “ills that flesh is heir to,” especially mental conditions, and it appeared in 18th-century pharmacopoeias before it was considered “the “devil’s element” that caused more curses than cures. Emsley continues his tale with a rich tableau of the activities of alchemists, apothecaries, scientists (including Robert Boyle), entrepreneurs, charlatans, and assorted picaresque characters, most of whom are brought to life in thumbnail sketches or more detailed portraits.
Emsley devotes three chapters to the phosphorus match, nicknamed the lucifer, immortalized in the line, “While you’ve a lucifer to light your fag” in the World War I song, “Pack up your Troubles.” No less a thinker than the Victorian English philosopher Herbert Spencer praised it as “the greatest boon and blessing to come to mankind in the nineteenth century.” However, in keeping with his goal to present both sides of the history of phosphorus—the good and the bad, the light and the dark—Emsley considers in great detail the social, labor, and medical problems that became a concomitant of the match industry.
The women (“match girls”) and children employed to manufacture matches, especially during Victorian times, endured dangerous and unbearable working conditions and eventually contracted phosphorus necrosis (“phossy jaw”), a painful, corrosive, and sometimes fatal disease that attacked the teeth and gums. Finally, the use of white phosphorus in match-making was outlawed by the Berne Convention of 1906, which was eventually signed by all nations except the United States. In Great Britain, the country to which Emsley devotes the most space in his stories, Parliament passed a law in 1908 that made phosphorus matches illegal after December 31, 1910. Emsley also discusses nonphosphorus friction matches, first manufactured by English surgeon and pharmacist John Walker in 1827, as well as safety matches.
In another chapter Emsley describes the horrors that civilians faced in World War II when attempts were made to destroy entire cities with phosphorus bombs. For example, he chronicles day by day the incendiary bombing, appropriately code-named “Operation Gomorrah” (July 24–August, 1943), of Hamburg—Germany’s second largest city and largest seaport and ironically the home town of the element’s discoverer. From one of the many “boxes” that Emsley scatters throughout his book to present data and information in an easily assimilated format, we learn that the Allies’ raid resulted in the death of at least 37,000 persons and the destruction of an immense amount of property. He does not neglect more modern phosphorus weapons. Although dropping phosphorus bombs on civilians is not likely to occur again, he concludes that “no other substance can produce the dense smoke of phosphorus pentoxide….[and] phosphorus will continue to be part of the armoury of all armed forces in the foreseeable future.”
In another chapter Emsley depicts the development of some of the most deadly poisons known—nerve gases including sarin, soman, tabun, and “the ultimate nerve gas” VX and their antidotes. He also discusses organophosphate insecticides (OPs). In the chapter titled “Murder” he describes a number of famous cases of poisoning carried out mostly by spouses and mostly in England, while in the chapter, “Fortunes from Phosphorus,” he surveys its production from the 18th to 20th centuries. During the second half of the last century its peaceful use in making phosphates for detergents sent its production soaring to more than a million tons per year.
After detailing several disasters involving phosphorus, Emsley considers the phosphate cycle in nature that governs all life on earth. He also surveys the development of phosphate fertilizers, including “superphosphate” and “triple superphosphate,” with an emphasis on the contributions of Justus Liebig, John Lawes, and Henry Gilbert. Concerning the importance of phosphorus he quotes Isaac Asimov: “We may be able to substitute nuclear power for coal, and plastics for wood, and yeast for meat, and friendliness for isolation—but for phosphorus there is neither substitute nor replacement.”
In the chapter “Oh, Shit!” (Emsley favors attention-getting titles) he is concerned with the problems that phosphorus causes when human and animal sewage as well as phosphate food additives and detergents enter our environment. Eutrophication (from the Greek meaning “well nourished”) refers to aquatic systems oversupplied with nutrients resulting in perpetual algal blooms that make them green, smelly, devoid of fish, and unfit for drinking or recreation. Although phosphates were first thought to be responsible for such environmental disasters, they were later vindicated. When used as fuel, chicken manure (hence the chapter title) with its high phosphate and high energy content can generate electricity and yields an ash containing as much as 25% phosphate.
In a final, intriguing chapter Emsley discusses alleged cases of spontaneous human combustion, which he calls “probably a myth” that he attributes to external sources of ignition and the “wick effect.” After the recital of all the horrors that preceded it, his succinct four-page epilogue, “the Devil’s Element,” which summarizes the entire book, is refreshingly upbeat. He attributes all the damage and misery that elemental phosphorus has caused to its flammability and toxicity, but he concludes that the damage caused by the human exploitation of phosphates and other compounds is due to an entirely different set of properties. He claims that current regulations will ensure that only completely safe compounds will be allowed, and he predicts “a golden future” for the element.
A three-page appendix summarizes important numerical data on phosphorus and discusses its allotropes. A ten-page list of sources, arranged according to chapter and ranging from 1677 (Robert Boyle) to 1998, serves as a list of references and suggestions for further reading. A detailed index (11 double-column pages) facilitates location of material.
Emsley occasionally uses formulae but in deference to the general reader he writes equations in words. He possesses a felicitous, almost poetic way with words, and he makes chemistry come alive with vivid images such as “when we strip away [phosphorus’] protective cage of four oxygen atoms and expose the element itself, we release a tiger.” A lapse in grammar, “The average person has in their body about 3.5 kg of calcium phosphate” (p. 257), is an exception rather the rule.
Although at times Emsley emphasizes the history of phosphorus as a Pandora’s box, on the whole he presents a balanced blend of the element’s positive and negative aspects in keeping with his longtime goal of extolling the benefits of chemistry in everyday life and dispelling the exaggerated fears about its environmental impact (chemophobia). I heartily recommend it to scientists and nonscientists alike. This modestly priced volume would make an ideal gift for a chemist friend.