Dusty old data

Every now and then I am reminded that, once upon a time, I did a chemistry degree. I still feel some warmth towards the subject, though I have forgotten most of what I learnt. I still remember some of my final year project – hours spent doing prep TLC to purify some obscure product and then a vain attempt to find out what it was. It confirmed my feeling that I was not cut out for the lab; much more satisfying for me was the process of hunting down references and writing up an account of the project. My project was in the land of organic chemistry and it was not where I wanted to be. Learning the language was challenging: I could cope with the grammar but not the vocabulary – all those thousands of reactions to remember.

There were a few rules to help, and I recall that the Woodward-Hoffmann rules came in useful. Two great chemists – Roald Hoffmann and Robert Burns Woodward – had formulated the rules and I remember reading their article that laid the rules out very clearly. Published in 1969 it used colour to great advantage to explain the ideas behind the rules. Someone told me that the real reason for using colour was to make it impossible to photocopy the article (photocopiers back then were exclusively black and white) as the blue and green colours used both showed as the same shade of grey.

These memories were jogged when I saw Woodward’s name in the title of a recent press release:

Family archives provide fascinating insight into R.B. Woodward’s work on organic superconductors

Woodward had died in 1979 (just a few days after I graduated, in fact). He left behind 699 pages of handwritten notes and his family preserved them.  Much later his two granddaughters digitally scanned each page, carefully numbering them according to the pages’ position in the stack. To cut a long story short, Michael P. Cava (a former graduate student of Woodward’s)  then took on the task of reading these notes and writing a review of their contents.  Sadly Cava himself died last year, but the resulting article, in Tetrahedron, is a fascinating combination of history, archives and chemistry (but mostly chemistry).  Woodward had in his later years become interested in the challenge of designing organic superconducting materials.  He was confident that he could develop an organic superconductor which would operate at room temperature but was not able to convince his colleagues to devote much experimental work to test the ideas he was developing.

The 699 pages of notes are a record of how far he got and the Tetrahedron article, including facsimiles of the notes themselves, reveals some of the exotic structures that he projected would have superconducting properties.  Coauthor Robert Williams says that the article covers “but a small sampling of the myriad ideas Woodward put on paper” and he hopes that “the complete set of these notes will one day reach the chemical community; it is of significant historical significance”.  The article includes a preface by Roald Hoffmann in which he praises Woodward’s mathematical skill and “his fearlessness—no, delight—in mathematical complication”, as well as his drawings which he says are:

precise, drawn with extreme care. In free-hand lines, firmly straight where they should be, in polygons, even shaded and colored in, as in his fillings of the plane with 24-membered C6S6N12 rings, the architectonic imagination soars in these drawings.

Hoffmann ends his preface:

The greatest molecular architect of the 20th century is in these pages groping for understanding. What fun it is to follow his imagination!

A more detailed account of the article is in Chemical & Engineering News.

Archives tend to be thought of as only of interest to historians but every now and then stories like this remind you that there can be science in them thar archives.  I can recall three instances where our archive holdings have proved particularly useful.

The first was, admittedly, more about science history than about pure science.  We received an email from a senior chemist at the Universty of Oxford asking about some secret wartime reports on penicillin, the 695 so-called CPS Reports.  These were reports to the MRC Committee for Penicillin Synthesis and were a primary source for The Chemistry of Penicillin (Princeton 1949).  Their authors included Sir Robert Robinson, Sir John Cornforth and Sir Edward Abraham. (There is also a link here to R.B. Woodward as he also worked on the synthesis of penicillin).  Copies of the reports were deposited in various libraries, including NIMR, but as is the way of things, they did not all survive.  Things that are not “regular” books or journals can be hard to track down years later in large libraries and archives.  Our enquirer had tried his own University library, the British Library and the Royal Society library as well as the National Archives at Kew, but all to no avail.  Luckily, we were able to track down the report that he was seeking and sent him a copy, feeling rather pleased that we had been able to deliver where other such illustrious libraries had not.  Later I learnt that Oxford had found their copies of the reports, filed in a non-obvious location.  The report that we supplied helped to inform this historical article on peptide chemistry at Oxford.

As well as obscure reports on pencillin we also hold the archives of the MRC Common Cold Unit, including details of over a thousand clinical trials looking at various interventions on patients suffering from various respiratory viruses.  A noted epidemiologist and Cochrane collaborator asked us for access to this material as he was working on a Cochrane Review of interventions for the prevention and treatment of the common cold.  His assistant made numerous trips to our dusty old store to identify trials of interest and she copied I don’t know how many pages of trial records. Our poor old photocopier didn’t know what had hit it!  Eventually the review was published, though it was later withdrawn.

Another example dates further back, to pre-internet days.  I got a phone call one day and the caller introduced herself as being a General Practitioner from Trinidad.  I think her name was Mary, but I can’t remember very well. Mary had the most beautiful Caribbean accent and I was immediately enchanted.  She told me that Elsie Widdowson (an eminent MRC researcher of yesteryear who co-authored the classic The Chemical Composition of Foods) had published a paper quite a few years earlier about nutrition in pregnant women, and the article had a footnote to say that all of her original data had been deposited in the Library at NIMR.  Mary wanted to know if she could get a copy of the data and I promised to have a look for her.  It turned out that we did have the data, on a reel of microfilm.  I arranged to have all 90 or so pages printed out and sent off to Trinidad.  This took quite some time, as we didn’t have a microfilm printer up to the job so I had to commission a specialist print firm to do the job.  Also as it was before the days when email was common my only means of communication with Mary was by phone.  I was glad when the job was all done, but I never did hear whether anything came of Mary’s examination of the data. One of these days I will have to have a good look to see if I can track anything down.

These moments of glory are rare, moments when we can say “Yes!  we can supply you with this vital information that noone else in the world can supply you with”.  Mostly they relate to historical enquiries but just sometimes that dusty old data may help to move science forward too.


About Frank Norman

I am a librarian in a biomedical research institute. I've been around a few years, long enough to know that exciting new things fall into the same familiar patterns. I'm interested in navigating a path for libraries as we slip from print through to electronic information resources.
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5 Responses to Dusty old data

  1. Didn’t know you were another ‘recovering’ chemist, Frank. I learned the Woodward-Hoffman rules too, a few years after you I guess, though I can’t remember anything about them now.

    Were you doing Chemistry in the days when Chemistry students used to have to do a German language course so that they could comprehend entries in the German-langage Organic Chemistry Compendia? They had given up by the early 80s, but I guess they might still just have been doing it when you were an undergrad.

  2. Frank says:

    Austin – I prefer to think of myself as a chemist manqué 😉

    No I didn’t have to take a German course though I think there was an option to do one. I recall that the idea that German was a good skill for a chemist to have was prevalent.

  3. Frank says:

    One of the speakers at Talkfest last night reminded me of the Old Weather project which digitized old naval log books and is now mining them for weather reports. A mixture of dusty old data, modern digitisation and crowdsourced effort.

  4. I’m shocked the British Library didn’t know how to properly archive that report you mentioned. I thought it was right up there with Death and Taxes.

  5. Frank says:

    Jenny – Well, though we may sometimes doubt it, the BL are only human. It just takes one lapse to create a needle-in -haystack problem. Also I think there was some sense that these were secret initially, so perhaps that helped to ensure they got somewhat buried.

    Earlier in the year there was a report that some MoD files on UFOs had gone missing from the National Archives. While it is possible that there was some kind of conspiracy, I found it highly plausible that archives files could just have been mislaid. It happens a lot.

    P.S. I just spotted another recent news item highlighting losses from the National Archives.