Submitted by Kim Lance / Ohio Wesleyan University on Thu, 07/22/2010 - 15:01
     I have a student working in my labs this summer who is a history buff.  He is very interested to read about the history of chemistry (especially inorganic chemistry) to try and understand how we got to where we are today.  We began the discussion at about the Bronze Age and tried to move from there....but there seemed to be a lot of disconnect that I was unable to fill in.  Does anyone know of a book that traces the history of inorganic chemistry and the various paths that have been taken?  Thanks for any and all suggestions.
Adam Johnson / Harvey Mudd College
If Scott doesn't know, then no one does.  Scott?
Thu, 07/22/2010 - 15:16 Permalink
Kyle Grice / DePaul University

 For historical info relating to chemistry, see the following books:

Napoleon's Buttons by Le Couteur and Burreson


The elements of murder by John Emsley (which is about poisons and elemental toxins used by murderers and how they were detected, etc.... he also has a book on the history of phosphorus that is good).

Kyle Grice

Graduate Student, Goldberg Lab

Thu, 07/22/2010 - 17:43 Permalink
Nancy Williams / Scripps College, Pitzer College, Claremont McKenna College

It's a rather large topic. I don't know of a "Single Volume History of the World through the Eyes of an Inorganic Chemist", though maybe that will be my retirement project.

I do give a lecture (that one of these days I should record or distill into "too many slides about" ppt format) that at least traces the story of metallurgy from prehistory to the Bessemer Steel Process; a friend of mine calls it the "what the White Cliffs of Dover have to do with the Spanish Armada" lecture. Alas, that information has come from dozens of books and websites, most of which have trickled out of the little holes in the back of my skull. I *know* there are two holes back there. I've seen skulls. I think there's a problem with the plug that is supposed to keep information from leaking out in my particular case.

I loved Napoleon's Buttons, and it's both information packed and a great read. "Traces of the Past: Unraveling the Secrets of Archaeology through Chemistry" is also good but quite different. It's about how we use chemistry to study prehistory. There are the various specific histories of petroleum, coal, salt, phosphorus, mauve, and so on, that make a good read by having a single narrative. I can recommend some of those if you're curious. There may be a great single volume history, but I haven't read it yet!

There are histories of chemistry, but we really need a book on the role of chemistry in history.

Fri, 07/23/2010 - 08:38 Permalink
Sibrina Collins / Marburger STEM Center (MSC) at Lawrence Technological University

You should check out the textbook "Descriptive Inorganic, Coordination, and Solid-State Chemistry," by Glen Rodgers. The first chapter (very brief) entitled "The Evolving Realm of Inorganic Chemistry," gives a good history.

Sibrina Collins, PhD College of Wooster

Mon, 07/26/2010 - 18:47 Permalink
Betsy Jamieson / Smith College

I have drawn on stories from the Elements of Murder in my Bioinorganic course.  It is a pretty interesting read.  I'd been thinking about reading Napoleon's buttons, so am happy to hear it was a good read. 


Not necessarily inorganic chemistry, but along history of science books - A person in our Education dept. alerted me to "The Story of Science" series written by Joy Hakim.  It's really more of a kids book, but I did tell some of the "stories" behind the scientists to my gen chem class.  Also,  I'm part way through "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot.  It's the story behind where HeLa cells came from - and the ethical implications for how they were obtained and the impact it had on Henrietta's family.  Very interesting read for anyone who's ever worked with this cell line (or read a paper where the cell line was used).


Tue, 08/03/2010 - 13:46 Permalink
Hilary Eppley / DePauw University
Betsy, We are talking about trying to bring Rebecca Skloot to campus to give a talk on her book this coming year.   I think I am going to try it on my vacation next week and am thinking about using it for my Science Research Fellows Senior Seminar.  Do you think it would be appropriate for that kind of audience?  It sounds like a fascinating way to get into a discussion of ethics in science.       
Wed, 08/04/2010 - 13:04 Permalink
Sibrina Collins / Marburger STEM Center (MSC) at Lawrence Technological University

Dear All,

I would like to prepare a Napoleon's Buttons type resource focused specifically on inorganic/organometallic compounds. Any thoughts? I have come up with my top 10 inorganic compounds including cisplatin, ferrocence, Vaska's complex, Vitamin B12, and etc. Ferrocence is really quite interesting because at one time it was an antiknocking additive for gasoline and now some researchers are investigating ferrocence derivatives for treating breast cancer. This fall, I will have my students write 3-5 page papers based on some of these compounds to get started. Any thoughts on this?

Sibrina Collins, PhD College of Wooster

Fri, 08/06/2010 - 21:45 Permalink
Chip Nataro / Lafayette College
The history of ferrocene was very nicely recounted in the J. Organomet. Chem. 2001, 637-639. There are five papers: Pauson (3-6), EO Fischer (7-12), Rosenblum (13-15), Whitting (16-17) and Cotton (18-26). They tell some wonderful stories and give you a great feel for the early days of working with ferrocene.
Tue, 08/10/2010 - 08:04 Permalink
Sibrina Collins / Marburger STEM Center (MSC) at Lawrence Technological University

Thanks Chip!

Sibrina Collins, PhD College of Wooster

Tue, 08/10/2010 - 19:01 Permalink
Joanne Stewart / Hope College


I started "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" with relatively low expectations because I expected it to focus on how "Big Bad Science" took advantage of "unsuspecting victim." But it turned out to be a fascinating read that captured the whole story in all its complexity. I loved it. It must have been a complete labor of love for the author, because she obviously worked incredibly hard to track down so many details and nuances. I think it would be a great book for a science seminar.

Sun, 09/05/2010 - 21:27 Permalink
Betsy Jamieson / Smith College

I agree with Joanne that the Henrietta Lacks book would be good for a science seminar.   It certainly is an interesting story and really makes you stop and think.  It would be great if you could coordinate it with a visit from the author.

Tue, 09/07/2010 - 14:13 Permalink
Hilary Eppley / DePauw University
After reading the book, I totally agree with Joanne and Betsy's assessment of the Henrietta Lacks book--amazing interweaving of the science, the personal history of Henrietta and her family, and the investigative journalism aspect of the story.   Rebecca Skloot, the author was just at DePauw this week and did both a seminar and a discussion with faculty. She is very articulate and bright (a Biology major with an MFA) and was well received with a packed audience and lots of questions. Next week is ethics week for my senior science seminar, so we are definitely going to be talking about her lecture and the book.  Thanks for the tips!   
Fri, 09/10/2010 - 22:50 Permalink
Kyle Grice / DePaul University
On a history-related note, there is a nice little historical overview of inorganic and organometallic chemistry in the beginning of Didier Astruc's book "Organometallic chemistry and catalysis", 2007.  A student could take one of the benchmarks that are mentioned in the section, and dive into researching the history/applications/etc of those compounds. 
Fri, 09/24/2010 - 14:17 Permalink
Kyle Grice / DePaul University

Hi, I thought I would bump this topic up and add a few papers I've read that have nice historical information.

I've particularly liked these two articles (they do overlap some), which cover info on metals in negative oxidation states:


"Adventures with Substances Containing Metals in Negative Oxidation States"

John E. Ellis, Inorg. Chem. 2006, 45, 3167 (correction/addition on p 5710)…


"Metal Carbonyl Anions: From [Fe(CO)4]2- to [Hf(CO)6]2- and beyond

John E. Ellis Organometallics 2003, 22, 3322

If anyone finds literature that covers the history of inorganic chemistry or organometallic chemistry, particularly in journal articles, I'd love to know! I think adding historical perspective to an inorganic course, or particularly an advanced inorganic or organometallic course is a great idea.  If I remember correctly, part of my advanced organomettic class was a history of the early organometallic compounds , and I really enjoyed getting that info before diving into the primary literature.

Wed, 08/01/2012 - 01:30 Permalink
Clifford Rossiter / SUNY Potsdam


I have found the Voices of Inorganic Chemistry series to be quite useful in tracing inorganic chemistry from both a historical and inquisitive perspective. Last semester I utilized the video of Harry Gray as an introduction to the different theories of coordination chemistry. As usual, Harry grabbed everyone's attention and made for a great introduction to the topic from both a historical and personal point of view. Here is the website.

Wed, 08/01/2012 - 09:56 Permalink
Kyle Grice / DePaul University

Another historical perspective paper I found that could be useful in teaching:

Organometallics 2007, 26, 5738

Organometallic Electrochemistry: Origins, Development, and Future
William E. Geiger


If people find other papers or sources that offer insights into the history of inorganic chemistry or any of the subfields, I would love to see them!


Mon, 11/19/2012 - 20:42 Permalink
Kyle Grice / DePaul University

Angewandte has a variety of essays on chemists, people whose research was critical to modern chemistry, and historical overviews of chemicals:




50 years of Ziegler Catalysts: Consequences and Development of an Invention


I'm sure if you look through the essays, you can find more.

Wed, 12/05/2012 - 12:55 Permalink
Kyle Grice / DePaul University

I read "From Coello to Inorganic Chemistry", an autobiography of Fred Basolo over the las few weeks. I think this would be a great book to pull some older names from for students to look at.  Also gives a great historical perspective on inorganic chemistry in the 1950's-1990 or so. Would be great for a junior or senior who is definitely going into graduate school in inorganic chemistry and is interested in historical perspectives.  There's also some interesting tidbits about Tobin Marks and Harry Gray in there, among many others.

Wed, 12/19/2012 - 12:45 Permalink
Kyle Grice / DePaul University

Ok, along the lines of "From Coello the Inorganic Reactions" (which i really enjoyed), there is another book the "Profiles in Inorganic Chemistry" series called "Landmarks in Organo-Transition Metal Chemistry: A Personal View" by Helmut Werner. I've just ordered a copy. It looks like it will be a great resource and I will update with my review of it after I read it. 


Sun, 01/27/2013 - 15:17 Permalink
Kyle Grice / DePaul University

Ok, I am only to Chapter 3 of Helmut Werner's "Landmarks in Organo-Transition Metal Chemistry", but I can tell I will love this book (I really enjoyed the first 2 chapters, about Helmut Werner's life and research history).  The rest of the chapters cover the history of organometallic chemistry. 

Already in chapter 3, the book has led me to this article, which gives the history of Cacodyl and OrganoArsenic compounds:

Cadet's Fuming Arsenical Liquid and the Cacodyl Compounds of Bunsen

by Dietmar Seyferth

Organometallics, 2001, 20 (8), pp 1488–1498

I'll say more about this book later, but suffice to say, I am already glad I bought it!




Thu, 01/31/2013 - 02:13 Permalink
Kyle Grice / DePaul University

Ok, I just finished reading "Landmarks in Organo-Transition Metal Chemistry", and it is a great resource for the history of inorganic chemistry. It even has a large section on metal alkyls and aryls, as well as C-H activation (a topic near and dear to my heart).  It has insight in the histories of various areas of inorganic chemistry, plenty of biographies, tons of references, and even has an index of all of the names of researchers that are mentioned in the text! I really enjoyed this book. Definitely worth getting this book if you are interested in teaching the history of inorganic chemistry as part of an inorganic or organometallic chemistry course.  

Thu, 02/07/2013 - 01:04 Permalink
Kyle Grice / DePaul University

Hi Everyone,

I just saw this article on Fausto Calderazzo, which I am looking forward to reading. Sad to hear that he passed this year:

Fausto Calderazzo: Pioneer in Mechanistic Organometallic Chemistry

This would be a good paper for those who are historically inclined. 



Wed, 12/10/2014 - 18:33 Permalink