Category Archives: Chemistry

Alan Dronsfield: A chemical, medical and social history of cocaine

On Tuesday 3rd November, the Williams Project welcomed back Professor Alan Dronsfield from the University of Derby to give a talk on the historical uses of cocaine. As we had learnt from his previous talks at the WP, Professor Dronsfield is a clear, experienced speaker whose keen interest in his topic is infectious.
Professor Dronsfield opened his talk by showing us six pictures of famous historical people who had taken cocaine in some form; Thomas Edison and even Queen Victoria among them. This helped him make the point that cocaine was once a common thing, before we were fully aware of its dangers. He told us that teas containing cocaine were common, and that the original form of the drink Coca-Cola contained a form of cocaine. However, he also explained that one form of cocaine had incredible medicinal value, specifically for dentistry purposes. For in the time before the mouth-numbing injection you can get today, you had to have your fillings done without anaesthetic, which was very difficult for the dentists. However, some scientists discovered that, by injecting cocaine into the patient’s mouth, they wouldn’t feel any pain and would even be a bit euphoric. This became common practice for quite some time before better methods were discovered which didn’t have such effects on the brain. Professor Dronsfield finished his talk by showing us a graph of lots of common recreational drugs and how they compared in terms of harmfulness. Cocaine was actually found to be less harmful than heroine, crack and, surprisingly, alcohol.
Professor Dronsfield’s talk was well-presented and very interesting, and we look forward to having him back again in the future.

Thomas Lockley

Alan Dronsfield

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Alan Dronsfield and Ann Ferguson: “Mother’s little helpers: Valium, its discoverer and discovery”

Professor Dronsfield, an old friend of the WP, and Dr Ferguson (retired Consultant Anaesthetist) presented a double-act on this widespread drug.

Ann told us about Leo Sternbach, the discoverer/inventor of valium: how, as a Jew, he escaped the Nazis in Central Europe and began a new life in the US working for pharmaceutical company Roche. Alan explained how, while here, he invented a series of tranquillisers, including diazepam, marketed as “Valium”, which is celebrated in the Stones’ Mother’s Little Helper. He stressed how luck and persistence were the key ingredients to Sternbach’s success, rather than “genius”: Einstein was right.

A fascinating and wide-ranging afternoon: it’s really interesting when scientists such as Alan and Ann are able to combine technical chemistry with the history and social context behind important developments.

Professor Howard Colquhoun: “Our lighter materials”

This week’s Williams Project meeting was presented by Professor Howard M. Colquhoun from Reading University’s Department of Chemistry who began his talk on materials science with a demonstration of how much materials had changed in the past half century, using the example of aerospace design. This led on to a talk on the development, use and structure of the materials we use every day, from the humble polyethene bag to complex carbon composites and kevlar, aided by a whole host of entertaining and surprising demonstrations, all in all giving us a greater insight into the shapes, structures, and strengths of the molecules all around us.

Howard Colquhoun

James Mulholland

Alan Dronsfield: two talks on the history of medicine

An old friend of the Williams Project, Professor Alan Dronsfield from the University of Derby, gave us two separate talks on medical history. The first, ‘To Sleep, Perchance to Dream – the early chemical history of anaesthesia’, set out the nightmare world of surgery before anaesthetics, and carefully took us through the, er, painfully slow development of methods of pain-relief, from nitrous oxide and opium to chloroform.

The second, ‘Marie Curie, the discovery of radium and its early use in medical therapy’, outlined the discovery of radiation, and the lives and research of Poland-born Marie Curie and her husband Pierre, and then explained the medical uses to which radium has been put, from the Finsen Lamp, used to clear skin lesions caused by lupus, to methods of applying radium to tumours deep in the body and the flourishing of radium hospitals across Europe. Alan then, to much wincing and a little giggling, showed us pictures of pseudo-medical products, from condoms to chocolate, claiming to harness the ‘energy’ of radium for general and specific health benefits, all of them spurious, and some of them harmful. Radioactive thermal underwear, drinks coasters and cigarette holders were some of the other highlights.

Throughout Alan, for a long time now Chair of the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Historical Group, held his audience fully engaged, and inspired some excellent questions. We hope to see him again.

Kathryn McDermott: Martian Meteorites

Kathryn McDermott from the Open University’s Department of Physical Sciences gave us a brilliant and whistle-stop tour of meteors, meteoroids and meteorites, of the basic categories, where they come from, what their composition is, and how they are used to research the geology of the solar system and the possibiliies of extra-terrestrial life. We then had a chance to touch and pick up some samples, often very heavy because of their iron content, and could see formations like the fusion crust (see photo), formed by melting as the rock fell through our atmosphere. There was even a small piece from Mars!

Alan Dronsfield: The First World War and its Chemical Origins

Professor Alan Dronsfield, from the University of Derby, explained in an entertaining and clear lecture how in WW1 the new methods used in the industrial production of fertilisers and explosives were more important to the outcome of the war (and to the numbers of killed and wounded) than the use of the better known poison gases. The British thought they could stop the Germans producing both fertilizers and explosives by blockading  their imports of  sodium nitrate “saltpetre” from Chile, but were ignorant of the newer developments in  the German chemical industry. The process invented by Fritz Haber in 1909 to make ammonia  from nitrogen in the air and hydrogen from water provided a cheap and inexhaustible route both to nitrate fertilizers and the recently invented  “high” explosives like TNT. We learnt how they did this, and also witnessed a live demonstration of dyeing silk with madder. It was the 19th-century work on this dyestuff (crucially, carried out in Berlin), and the manufacture of a cheap synthetic version, that switched the dyestuffs industry from the UK to Germany, which then became the focus of the world’s production and, shortly later, a dynamic chemical industry that made possible the manufacture of high explosives on a huge scale. Alan’s talk was a perfect example of how two subjects can inform each other; it was also made local with photographs of the school’s WW1 memorial plaques in the chapel, and ended with images of the war accompanied by Barber’s Adagio for Strings.

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