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A Century Of CAS

For 100 years, the Chemical Abstracts Service has kept the world's scientists abreast of chemical advances

by Ivan Amato
June 11, 2007 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 85, Issue 24

At the table creating CA indexes in 1931 are (in the foreground) Helen Game (later Mrs. Crane) and Elmer Hockett, (behind them on the left) W. R. Steman and Leonard T. Capell, and (on the right) E. J. Crane, editor of CA.
Credit: CAS

THE AMERICAN CHEMICAL SOCIETY has its headquarters in Washington, D.C., and it's best known for its publications and national meetings. However, two-thirds of ACS's approximately 2,000 employees work in Columbus, Ohio, at the Chemical Abstracts Service, which is the part of ACS's operations that generates the organization's largest single revenue stream—more than $266.4 million last year.

This year marks the centenary of CAS, the acronymic anagram of ACS by which it is most often referred to. Born in 1907 when some of the best scientific minds were still debating the very existence of atoms, CAS has evolved into a pillar of the world's chemical information infrastructure. It has played a significant behind-the-scenes role in the history of chemistry over the past century.

An information-based institution that pioneered its own Internet-like environment years before the Internet, CAS enters its second century negotiating a fast-changing landscape of information technologies, social trends, and business models. These factors generate often contradictory forces and make the long-term trajectory of CAS impossible to predict with confidence.

Chemical Abstracts had humble beginnings in 1897 in the Journal of the American Chemical Society as a regular insert of abstracts of chemistry research from around the world. In 1907, CAS took a bold self-affirming step when it published the first stand-alone issue of Chemical Abstracts (the first page of that first issue appears on C&EN's cover). Since then, CAS has evolved into a unique, vast, and continually growing compendium of chemical structures, patents, reactions, properties, research abstracts, and other categories of molecule-centric information.

In the half-hour or so it takes you to read this special celebratory section commemorating CAS's first century and the beginning of its second, about 250 new small molecules will have been added to CAS's Chemical Registry. After reading this sentence alone, the Registry's roster, which was more than 31 million at press time, probably increased by another substance.

On 20 pages of a magazine, there is no way to convey the comprehensive history and meaning of a consequential, century-old institution like CAS, but C&EN hopes that the components of this special section, and a few more online offerings, will provide a feel for the place and perhaps instigate those unfamiliar with CAS to get to know it. A good start is at the CAS website,

Our package begins with a compelling history of CAS, written by one of its own talented longtime employees, that takes readers on a tour of the organization as it negotiated and helped to characterize the information age in which it grew and evolved.

The second part of the package amounts to a mere snapshot of one of CAS's newest and most powerful information products. Known as STN AnaVist, it enables users to probe the vast and varied landscape of chemical research from either a global purview akin to a high-flying airplane or more localized views, all of the way down to feet-on-the-ground and shovels-in-the-dirt levels.

To cap off this special feature, we asked Robert J. Massie, CAS's president for the past 15 years, to reflect on where his organization has come from, where it is now, and what its next few years might look like.

This week in Columbus, on June 14 to be exact, CAS is being honored by ACS at a ceremony marking its designation as a National Historic Chemical Landmark. Two plaques, one slated for placement on CAS's 56-acre campus and one for Ohio State University's McPherson Laboratory, which generously housed CAS for 56 years, will be unveiled.

"CAS has provided generations of scientists with unparalleled access to the most comprehensive collection of chemical information," reads the first plaque. "CAS continues to pursue its mission to provide access to chemical and related information that speeds and enables scientific discovery to improve people's lives," the plaque proclaims with a voice that speaks of both the present and future.



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