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May 27, 2010
Max Gergel's Memoirs
For once, I'm going to farm out a "Things I Won't Work With" post to someone else. For those who missed it in the comments, here's the link to the PDF of Max Gergel's extraordinary memoir "Excuse Me Sir, Would You Like to Buy a Kilo of Isopropyl Bromide?" Gergel founded Columbia Organic Chemicals, and if you want to see how it was done in the Old Days, this is the place to go. A sample:
". . .As we chatted, as if the thought had struck him for the first time, the old rogue said, "You know Gergel, I have a prep you could run for us which would make you a lot of money." Now this was the con working on the con. When my mother told me that a gentleman had called from town asking to visit Dr. Gergel there was no one at the plant except the two of us; when Parry, whom I already knew by reputation, sauntered in disguised as a simple country bumpkin I knew he was the director of research for Naval Research Labs, and his mission was to find someone foolhardy enough to make pentaborane. News travels. I met him at the door and told him that I was simply a lab flunky but would fetch Mr. Gergel, that my boss was extremely smart but had been prevented by the war effort (in which he had served valiantly and with distinction) from getting a PhD; that right now Mr. Gergel was extremely busy with priority reaction but would be able to see him in ten minutes—which gave me time to change my clothes and wash my face. He never realized that we were the same person. Parry chatted with me in the breezy, confidential voice that has been used by every con man since Judas Iscariot and told me that the only reason that the Navy was willing to farm out this fascinating project was simply luck of qualified personnel. That my splendid contribution to Manhattan District was well known by the military, that people spoke of me as a true Southern prodigy. (The old devil was so good that I listened with gradually increasing preparedness to make pentaborane, although I had been forewarned that it was dog with a capital "D". . .
I came across the book in Duke's chemistry library in 1984, a few years after its publication, and read it straight through with my hair gradually rising upwards. Book 2 is especially full of alarming chemical stories. I suspect that some of the anecdotes have been polished up a bit over the years, but as Samuel Johnson once said, a man is not under oath in such matters. But when Gergel says that he made methyl iodide in an un-air-conditioned building in the summertime in South Carolina, and describes in vivid detail the symptoms of being poisoned by it, I believe every word. He must have added a pound to his weight in sheer methyl groups.
By modern standards, another shocking feature of the book is the treatment of chemical waste. Readers will not be surprised to learn that several former Columbia Organic sites feature prominently in the EPA's Superfund cleanup list, but they certainly aren't alone from that era.
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