Dr. Warfield Teague is retiring this year, which makes me feel old. He was one of the professors who helped make me what I am today – in his case, partly by keeping me out of his chosen field of inorganic chemistry. It was a good move on his part; I’d surely have blown something up good and thoroughly when I got to grad school, such are the opportunities in that area.
Unfortunately for both him and for me, his Advanced Inorganic course ended up scheduled for 7:40 AM back in early 1983. I started out my college career with a barrage of classes at that hour, and made every one of them. My sophomore year, I only skipped one class, and I waited for the lightning bolt to descend even for that one. But my junior year I had a professor or two whose lectures could be safely (even profitably) missed, and I began to get in the habit.
Teague wasn’t in that category, though. His lectures were fine; it’s just that they took place so early in the morning. My roommate David and I, both chemistry majors, found it harder and harder to summon the activation energy needed to make it out of the thermodynamic sinks of our beds. Dr. Teague’s threat to come over and teach the class in our dorm room didn’t quite do the trick (while lying there in bed, actually, the idea had a certain appeal). But his threat to start giving top-of-the-morning quizzes did. I showed up, and kept showing up. First year of grad school, now that’s where I started slacking off in my classes in earnest. But not all of the professors I had that year could communicate the facts of their specialty as well as Dr. Teague could for his.
The lab part of the course, that I would have shown up at 6 AM for. I don’t know how he’s done it in recent years, but 25 years ago (not possible, that), we could do pretty much any lab procedure that Dr. Teague would sign off on. There was a requirement that we do at least one low-temperature one, one high-temperature one, one metal complex, and so on. So the dozen or so of us in the class would root around through Inorganic Syntheses or the like, looking for interesting stuff. And there’s plenty of it in there, let me tell you.
In my case, the most memorable included the preparation of fluorosulfonic acid from scratch. Scratch means you start from concentrated hydrofluoric acid, a fine substance for the spirited undergraduate chemist to become familiar with. I can still hear the peculiar whine that solid KOH pellets make when you toss them into a plastic dish of the acid – they’ve a pretty short half-life in there, I can tell you. And I also made the magnesium analog of ferrocene – magnecene, I guess you’d call it – by one of those don’t-be-afraid-of-the-obvious routes: heat some magnesium turnings to about 600 C in a tube furnace, and pass fresh cyclopentadiene monomer vapors over them. Works great. And while you shouldn’t be afraid of the paper synthesis, red-hot magnesium metal is something else again.
While I was thus engaged, my classmates were setting off thermite reactions, making phosgene from carbon tetrachloride (chromium trioxide, five hundred degrees, nothing to it), and preparing titanium tetrachloride from the ground up. (I can’t recommend that particular prep – the liquid “tickle-four” comes out bright green from being around 1 molar in dissolved chlorine gas, so you’re going to want to redistill it, most likely). We learned a fair amount of inorganic chemistry, and more than a fair amount of lab technique. As evidence for that, we all survived.
Whether the latest generation of undergrads will get these kinds of experiences, I don't know. But I'm glad I did, and I'd like to thank Warfield Teague for providing them.