The 13th Element


by John Emsley (John Wiley & Sons, Inc.)


(This commentary was first published in the XXXX ArtVoice of Buffalo.)


You may recall from high school chemistry your teacher removing a piece of phosphorus from its oil bath only to have it burst into flame. In his interesting account, The 13th Element: The Sordid Tale of Murder, Fire, and Phosphorus, John Emsley describes the history of that element and the tale is indeed sordid.


Here is his introduction to this 13th element to be discovered: “To begin with, phosphorus was greeted with great acclaim, and yet it was damned from the moment it was born. It displayed properties that humans were in no position to cope with.... Phosphorus promised cures but it delivered mainly curses. It is a deadly poison and yet soon after its discovery it was being sold by pharmacists as a treatment for all kinds of illnesses and especially mental conditions. Even more remarkable, it was to remain part of the medical pharmacopoeia well into the twentieth century despite its having cured no one of anything in the previous 250 years.


“While doctors used phosphorus, hoping to cure their patients, others used it to murder them...; and while some scientists were researching it with a view to making pesticides to benefit human beings, others were secretly turning it into nerve gases, the better to destroy them....


“Even Nature finds it difficult to control phosphorus, having assigned to it the role of limiting all life on Earth.... Phosphorus is in short supply, yet is essential for every living cell. However, when humans increase the amount in the environment by using it as fertilizers and detergents, the life-forms that flourish may not be the ones we want....


“Phosphorus has the power to burst into flames; again a mixed blessing. Its ability to burn was put to use in various ways down the ages, starting with phosphorus tapers and phosphorus matches..., and ending with phosphorus bullets and phosphorus bombs. The irony was that Hamburg was to be devastated by phosphorus in the twentieth century, when tens of thousands of its citizens would be burned alive by it.... Back in seventeenth-century Hamburg all this was well into the future, but, for good or evil, the genie of phosphorus had been loosed on the world.”


Emsley makes much of that order of discovery: “It was the thirteenth chemical element to be isolated in its pure form. Unlucky phosphorus. (The others, in the order in which they were discovered, were: carbon, sulfur, copper, silver, gold, iron, tin, antimony, mercury, lead, arsenic and bismuth. These twelve occur naturally, or were easy to win from their ores, or were discovered by individuals unknown.)”


And he goes on to tell us, “Phosphorus was discovered when the practice of alchemy was giving way to chemistry. If a single chemical can be said to have precipitated that change, it was phosphorus. If a single event in the history of this element was responsible, it was Kraft's final demonstration of its remarkable properties at a private house in London one September evening in 1677....


“The fact that it was extracted from urine and glowed with its own source of light only added to its attraction, and this glow was taken as strong evidence that phosphorus really was the 'flammula vitae', the vital flame of life.“


That this dangerous element became so widely used in medicine sounds strange to us today, but we have to recall that physicians were grasping at straws in the 18th and 19th centuries: “Ashburton Thompson's FREE PHOSPHORUS IN MEDICINe was a scholarly work by the leading consultant surgeon to the Great Northern Railway Company of Great Britain and the Royal Maternity Charity, London. This weighty tome not only assumed that phosphorus was a useful medicament but also reported cures that had been achieved with it. Thompson discussed its use in a series of conditions, namely nervous exhaustion (which today we would refer to as a nervous breakdown), melancholia, softening of the brain and hysteria (psychiatric disorders), apoplectic paralysis (stroke), sclerosis of the spinal cord, impotence, migraine, epilepsy, assorted skin diseases, pneumonia, alcoholism, TB, cholera and various conditions of the eye, such as amaurosis (loss of sight due to diseases of the eye, optic nerve or brain damage), cataract and glaucoma. He particularly recommended phosphorus as the best cure for toothache and neuralgia.


“According to Thompson, the use of phosphorus had been endorsed by many notable medics down the years and he quoted observations made in the eighteenth century by eminent doctors and especially the work of Leroy and his treatment for TB. This chorus of approval was to continue in the early years of the nineteenth century with other influential medics adding their support for its curative powers. With such a weight of authority lending phosphorus its support, it is not surprising that this element was seen as the first-choice remedy for many ailments. Stories were often told of patients being revived by phosphorus when recovery seemed hopeless.


“Phosphorus at this time was considered particularly beneficial to the nervous system, although doctors were alerted to its aphrodisiac side-effects and they were aware that in too large a dose it was poisonous. That, of course, is true, but so were many of the medicines prescribed by doctors, if taken in large doses. The use of phosphorus in medicine declined in the mid-nineteenth century when it was discovered to be the cause of the industrial disease phossy jaw, which slowly ate away the jawbone and left suppurating abscesses in the sufferer's mouth....“


I found the story of the development of matches the most interesting part of this book: “It is difficult now to imagine what life was like when most cooking, heating and lighting involved a naked flame. Generating such a flame using flint and tinder could be quite difficult, especially on a cold, damp morning. The phosphorus match did away with the daily struggle to light a fire or a candle and was extremely cheap -- 1,200 matches could be bought in London for the price of a postage stamp (one penny) -- so it was not so surprising that the benefits of the match were worthy of comment by one of the leading thinkers of the day. The lucifer had ended thousands of years of struggling to light fires, ovens, oil lamps and candles.”


But matches as we know them were far from the first fire-lighters. The sparks from flint and steel served from the time of the cave men, but finally the French chemist Claude Berthollet discovered “that sugar and potassium chlorate form an explosive mixture prone to detonate spontaneously while being ground together. When the two powders were mixed as a paste and dried, they became stable but a tiny drop of sulfuric acid would cause the compound to burst into flames, and this chemical reaction was the basis of a new kind of match, the briquets oxygnes. These were first produced in France in 1805 and had heads made of potassium chlorate, sugar and gum, and they could be ignited by dipping them into sulfuric acid. Another version of the chlorate match called Eurpyrion feuerstoffe was manufactured on a larger scale at a Berlin factory which, by 1825, employed 400 workers.“


After several other false starts, John Walker had one of those fortunate experiences that so often contribute to science: “In 1825 he was asked by a customer, Alton Norton, to make up a fifty-fifty mixture of potassium chlorate and antimony sulfide as a paste, thickened with a little gum. This formulation was often used as a percussion composition, which means that it would detonate when struck. A little of the mixture fell on the stone hearth in Walker's workshop and, when he trod on the dried material, it caught fire. He then experimented by using the paste to tip matches and found they could be ignited by rubbing them on a rough surface....“


A useful discovery indeed and we still employ what we now call kitchen matches, an improved variant of Walker’s invention. But tied to it was the sad history of the match girls who made those 19th century matches and developed terrible physical problems from their unwitting contact with this dangerous chemical.


And much of the history is downhill from there: phosphorus bombs, flame throwers, nerve gas and many of our dangerous modern pesticides.


Indeed much of this story does represent a sordid tale, but I found it extremely interesting nonetheless.-- Gerry Rising