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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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« The Doctorate and Its Discontents | Main | The Big Time »

April 18, 2007


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Posted by Derek

I have boxes and boxes of files here at home these days, the contents of my filing cabinets in my former office. Obviously, I heaved the proprietary stuff before I left, but I still have plenty of folders full of papers from the literature. Some of those went into the dumper as well, though, as I pulled them from the cabinets and realized how old they were. The biology-based folders were the main candidates - stuff on Alzheimer's from the early 1990s, for example. Old NMR manuals and such got the heave, too.

The chemistry files have held up better, although some older reviews went into the shredder. I still have the first real journal articles that I ever copied off, from my undergraduate days back in 1981. These were a series of articles from the late 1970s by two guys named Burfield and Smithers on the best ways to dry common solvents. They're looking a bit tattered these days, but the information in them is still valid.

And there's another old folder that I'll never throw out. It has my continuation exam material in it from grad school, and it looks like something made by a caveman. The bonds are drawn with pen, using a plastic template, and the atoms are the good old rub-on letters. You used to be able to buy sheets of those things from Aldrich - standard rub-on sheets didn't have the letters biased toward common atoms and tended to get used up too quickly. When you messed something up with the template, you either did the whole thing again, or used some correction fluid. When you messed up with the letters, you scraped them off with a razor blade. The whole process was much, much, closer to making gouges in a tablet of pressed buffalo dung and leaving it to dry in the sun than it is to using Chemdraw.

And that's why I'm keeping them. When I get frustrated with some device or technology, I try to remind myself of the days when a page of structure drawings involved Scotch tape, ball-point pens, and razor blades. I just barely overlapped with that era, but it was more than enough.

Comments (21) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: The Scientific Literature


1. Paul on April 18, 2007 10:56 AM writes...

Did they go into the "dumper" or the dumpster? (There's a big difference ;p )

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2. Konrad on April 18, 2007 11:07 AM writes...

Derek, you are certainly dating yourself with your admission that you used CroMagnonDraw in grad school ;-) I did the same thing and was astounded the first time I saw ChemDraw. This was a year after I wrote my thesis. arrrgh!

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3. milkshake on April 18, 2007 11:42 AM writes...

The white-out liquid used to be invaluable for improving HPLC, NMR quality for publication
Biologists cut-and-paste gells for Cell or Nature submissions - so few solvent signals edited out by hand is not a big deal. You just have to know when you are fooling others - as to not to start fooling yourself.

(now I am gonna duck under the bench)

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4. Devices R Us on April 18, 2007 12:58 PM writes...

Not only was there CroMagnonDraw but before computers controlled all of the instruments in our lab, we routinely cut out chromatograms and weighed them to integrate in the late 70's. Lots of fun.

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5. Jon Amoroso on April 18, 2007 1:15 PM writes...

I TA'ed an organic lab last year and students would still submit reports with hand drawn structures, or suffer through trying to draw hexagons in MS paint. They were all overjoyed when I told them about the freeware structure drawing programs out there. I think more instructors should tell their students about them.

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6. Jim on April 18, 2007 1:27 PM writes...

How about putting a poster together on small pieces of poster board or worse yet, putting together a bibliography for a manuscript before EndNote or RefMan?

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7. JSinger on April 18, 2007 3:14 PM writes...

...or printing your "slides" on paper and having to photograph them one by one? Or going to the library, pulling 10 enormous, musty volumes off the shelves and turning page after page while copying the papers you need?

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8. MTK on April 18, 2007 5:14 PM writes...

A couple of months ago, we had some computer issues, so I was forced to use a GC that used an old HP integrator, the one with the little ink cartridge that you have to prime. Murphy's rule being what it is, the integrator had a meltdown halfway through so I saw my three peaks but couldn't read the integration %'s. It was on a weekend and I needed my data now and didn't know how to fix the integrator. I went old school and cut out the peaks and weighed them, which is something I had never done before. On Monday, the person in the lab who is responsible for the instruments had it back up and running and I reran the sample. The numbers obtained using scissors and a balance were within 0.5% of those obtained upon from the integrator on the re-analysis. I had to laugh.

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9. Petros on April 19, 2007 1:50 AM writes...

That takes me back too

When I started working in the lab we used chemical stencils for drawing structures for reports. For my thesis I was lucky, and able to use chemical Letraset, from Aldrich and others.

Then I slowly progressed through the chemical drawing packages.

Anyone remember WIMP? available from Aldrich, which would draw structures but only on plotters. Moving up to MDL's ChemDraw (pre Windows) was a big improvement. An d installing that required many more disks than those requires to install IsisDraw!

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10. Philip on April 19, 2007 6:35 AM writes...

Petros, it doesn't take you back far enough.

MDL had nothing to do with ChemDraw and were fighting tooth and nail to get a much inferior DOS product into pharma as ChemDraw was starting to see success on the Mac. IsisDraw came much later. And your install info is a little flaky, too.

Man, I miss the old days of the platform wars.

BTW, I wrote my thesis on a Prime computer using runoff. I left spaces for the structures which I did with rub-ons and a nice rapid-o-graph pen.

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11. Bunsen Honeydew on April 19, 2007 7:26 AM writes...

Devices R Us- I love knowing old school techniques. They have saved my butt on more than one occasion. Probably the biggest was in 2001, when I was trying to finish a paper. We needed to determine the enantiomer ratio of a sample. I could get close to baseline separation by GC. I couldn't do HPLC because we only had a UV detector and I had no chromophore. The GC software would only do a linear cut to slice off the peak, but of course, that's not accurate so I reverted to the old approach of print-cut-weigh. We wound up using the average of print-cut-weigh and the computer data but it was a lot of fun!

I am also a fan of doing distillations with a Bunsen burner. But that may just have something to do with my name.

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12. Petros on April 19, 2007 8:31 AM writes...


Well what was the name of MDL's drawing package, paart of their CPSS suite
and ?

It's so long ago since I started with CPSS 1.2

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13. CET on April 19, 2007 9:44 AM writes...

Re: #6, #7
How about putting a poster together on small pieces of poster board or worse yet, putting together a bibliography for a manuscript before EndNote or RefMan?
...Or going to the library, pulling 10 enormous, musty volumes off the shelves and turning page after page while copying the papers you need?

Fear not. I have encountered all of these during my time at small liberal arts colleges - and I graduated last year.

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14. Dave L on April 19, 2007 2:43 PM writes...

I remember printing out slides and photographing them with high contrast 35mm film in an illuminated jig that was set up on the lab bench. I developed the film in our own dark room, cut and spliced the slides into plastic holders, and added color with special markers. Yellow was a favorite for the titles. The presentation was made with one of those big clunky slide projectors with the noisy fan.

I also remember taking the derivative of a curve (made by a plotter) by reflecting the line back on itself and drawing the tangent at that point. Do this every so many intervals and calculate the slopes of all the tangents and plot those and viola! have a derivative!

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15. Anonymous on April 19, 2007 4:26 PM writes...

When I was writing my Ph.D., the university had a rule that they had rights to keep the typed original. Mine was the first that was written on a computer (using "Scribe"... anyone remember @i(that) language?) and printed with a Laser printer (the size of a file cabinet, only a few pages a minutes... talk about evil stares when the backed-up line of people looked at you pick up a 300-page document while they waited for their single pages). When it came time to file, they rejected it, saying it was a "copy", not the original. Took a lot of explaining that there *was* no original... almost didn't graduate.

(Heard recently that now they *require* a computer-readable copy. Wonder what they do with originals in nroff, troff, and LaTeX??)

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16. Chalkdust on April 20, 2007 2:41 AM writes...

Not only was there CroMagnonDraw but before computers controlled all of the instruments in our lab, we routinely cut out chromatograms and weighed them to integrate in the late 70's. Lots of fun.

Hey, I did that only a couple of months ago for a Bragg diffraction pattern I was examining! :-) They keep those techniques around just to make us grad students cry, I think. (It was weigh them, or use the planimeter. I took one look at that thing, had a moment of appropriate appreciation for its ingenious design, and headed straight for the lab's balance.)

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17. kiwi on April 20, 2007 5:08 AM writes...

i'm a young-un, and i've had the joy of intergrating gc by weighing. i've also collected nmr spectra on an ocilloscope, with a CW 60 MHz permanent magnet instrument complete with inkpen plotter. gives you one hell of an appreciation for high field computerised FT NMR!

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18. JSinger on April 20, 2007 10:04 AM writes...

On the "...and technology taketh away..." side, I just finished entering all the data for a 13 author paper into one of those journal submission management systems. That probably gave back most of the productivity gains of the last two weeks.

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19. cowboychemist on April 20, 2007 3:44 PM writes...

ChemText was an integrated text and drawing program AND it did require a huge number of floppy disks to install. It did the job, however.

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20. richard blaine on April 21, 2007 7:57 AM writes...

Ah, the bad ol' days! Back in grad school in the '80s, I started out using Rapidograph drafting pens and a sophisticated o-chem template that I mail-ordered from Europe. (I still have that template on the shelf above my desk.) Cro-Magnon indeed.

Later, I wrote my own structure drafting software using Turbo Pascal on the IBM PC. Pre-mouse days, for goodness sake, so used the arrow keys to navigate and the function keys to "draw." Output to HP pen plotter (HPGL, anyone?) Took me weeks of spare time work to code. Don't know whether this saved me time or not on balance over Aldrich's burnish-on structures that my classmates used.

Wrote my thesis with ChiWriter, an amazing pre-Windows scientific word processor that could do italic, bold, Greek letters, subscripts, & superscripts (mirable dictu!). Anyone heard of this? I think it was written by a math prof from Michigan, but my recollection is fuzzy.

Like Philip, I had to leave spaces in the text for structures to be pasted in (literally, of course) later. My wife helped out by making several photocopies of each pen-plotted structure at various magnifications. Then, during an interview trip, we sat in our hotel room for hours each night amid piles of paper scraps with scissors and rubber cement fitting structures into the blanks. Perhaps this qualifies as "Bronze-Age."

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21. Carbs on May 24, 2007 7:43 AM writes...

On a rather old skool note.

Anyone know where I can get hold of a stencil? At my own personal WDF we still use paper and pen for lab books etc. and drawing all these oligos can be a pain. And make the lab book look like a 3 years olds scribble pad. God save me if I have to draw another chair freehand. Even if I am getting disturbingly good at it.

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