I have a different perspective on this.
The whole tasting and smelling of chemicals, and other techniques which we would view as egregious violations of safety practices today, were part of routine analysis in the Renaissance, and later even. At that point, there were no other means of characterizing newly discovered compounds/elements. Even after there was a rudimentary understanding of elements and chemical bonding, many wet tests weren't developed until the mid 19th century, and some later. Modern instruments of analysis of course came even later.
I think these folks new full well in many cases that there was a risk to their health, and quite possibly their lives, by engaging in these practices. Yet the advancement of science made it necessary, and so they did it.. It was part of being a scientist, and especially a chemist. I think they very much thought of themselves as explorers in an uncharted, treacherous terrain who perhaps might have to die for their discoveries and fame. They definitely had a much greater tolerance of risk than most of us do today because they had to. There were no other options available to them.
The unfortunate thing that happened is that this risk taking with safety became ingrained in the culture, even after other means became available such that it was not a necessity to risk life and limb for science. It some how became tied up with the whole nature of doing science, the fierce independence and need to take intellectual risks, and the aversion to external control or interference. In truth, I think that is only recently really starting to change. In my experience, the generations after the baby boomers seem far less inclined to risk it all for science, because I think they were the first to be taught that it is not expected or necessary, and is in fact undesirable behavior.
Anyways, that's how I've always viewed it. I have a Ph.D. in chemistry, and have been in academia most of my life. So this is all based on my experiences. I'm sure others may have different experiences.
From: DCHAS-L Discussion List [dchas-l**At_Symbol_Here**med.cornell.edu] on behalf of Bruce Van Scoy [bvanscoy**At_Symbol_Here**TWC.COM]
Sent: Wednesday, February 17, 2016 8:25 PM
Subject: Re: [DCHAS-L] A mid-winter Lab Safety koan
Early in my career I ran across a reference book of chemical properties. The
test was a peer reviewed textbook considering the properties of organic
chemicals. I think it was published in the 50's, but that is from memory
only! At the time I found it confusing yet amazing that the chemical
properties being described included a description of "Taste". I wish that I
would have had the foresight to document the title, author, etc., and
obtained a copy of that reference book, since it was readily apparent that
organic chemists would routinely taste their results and document their
"observations" and absolutely this does tell us something about their risk
My observations/conclusions were:
1) They thought they were practicing science. Show me the evidence that
safety was even in their respective vocabulary at that time, except for how
to complete a reaction, process, etc. without an explosion. I don't think
they knew of or even considered long term consequences. Additionally, I
hypothesize that their research was so focused on their respective field of
expertise, that they were not aware of the discoveries in toxicology,
industrial hygiene, occupational exposures that were occurring elsewhere.
Please notice that this is a hypothesis with no valid scientific data to
support, only knowledge of what occurred and I am open to correction!
2) They were not aware of the safety risks or consequences. Consider how
much actual circulation of peer-reviewed published articles occurred at that
time with the methods used to convey that information. It is an absolute
opposite from today with the advent of the internet and almost instantaneous
3) There were no standards recognized, in-place or followed that would have
prohibited the practice. Yes, ACGIH existed, and they had published
exposure levels for a very limited number of chemicals decades prior to
OSHA. This is no-where near close to comparing what these organic chemists
were comparing, evaluating and documenting.
Who made the connection between scientific observation relating to
occupation hazard or disease at that time? You may want to consider the
co-development of the field of Toxicology, in relation to the timeframe!
4) The chemists were following the acceptable practices from their time,
and those practices would not be considered acceptable today. We are all
continuously learning, while the standards and what is considered acceptable
exposure levels change as well (some more than others.) You may want to
review the continued progress of the ACGIH TLV Committee to update the TLVs,
(caveat, ACGIH member since 1984) compared to OSHA's update of the PELs,
application of NIOSH-RELs, or even the German MAKs.
5) See #1. Scientists don't know until they/we learn from their
You asked for comments or insights so I'm providing my observations only.
I would be glad to see the compilation of the results received!
From: DCHAS-L Discussion List [mailto:dchas-l**At_Symbol_Here**med.cornell.edu] On Behalf Of
Sent: Wednesday, February 17, 2016 10:13 AM
Subject: [DCHAS-L] A mid-winter Lab Safety koan
I was stuck in the house last weekend due to frigid temperatures and a bad
case of the flu, so I managed to catch up on some skimming of potentially
interesting books I had brought home from the library. At the risk of
revealing my inner nerd, one was "Modern Organic Synthesis in the
Laboratory: A Collection of Standard Experimental Procedures", looking for
safety advice being given to chemistry majors in 2007.
In section 1.1.2 on "Material Safety Data Sheets" (in Section 1.1, helpfully
titled "Safety!"), the authors note:
"Gone are the days when a chemist could smoke a cigarette in the laboratory.
Arthur J. Birch was photographed smoking a cigar while demonstrating an
ether extraction, which is unthinkable today."
End of section; the next section is "Never Taste Chemicals".
The question that came to my mind while reading this was:
Why did the authors feel the need to note Mr. Birch's lab habits in this
Does this choice tell us something about the risk culture being established
by the text?
(An interesting irony of this observation is that the introductory sentence
of the MSDS section advises that caution is particularly warranted for
"reactive chemicals, carcinogens and toxic reagents". However, the example
they used to illustrate the point is presumably related to the flammability
of ether, rather than those particular hazards of the situation)
Anyway, I've been thinking about this question long enough that I needed to
write it out and share it before it will go away...
Comments and insights would be appreciated.
Ralph Stuart, CIH, CCHO
Chemical Hygiene Officer
Keene State College
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