Issue Date: February 26, 2007
Journalism is often described, accurately I think, as the first draft of history. Journalists report on events in real time, almost as they are happening. Inevitably, because they are working with incomplete information under a deadline, journalists get some things wrong.
Historians, by contrast, take the long view. They have time to gather the relevant information, sift it, ponder its significance, and develop an authoritative portrait of past events. That's not to say that history doesn't shift over time. We know it does as new facts and sources come to light. No historian, however, thinks he or she is working on a first draft.
This week's issue of C&EN has an important story on a fascinating bit of chemical history: the synthesis of quinine (see page 47). The genesis of the article, written by Associate Editor Bethany Halford, is the work of chemical historian Jeffrey I. Seeman, who has recently published an exhaustive paper on the subject in Angewandte Chemie.
C&EN has visited the synthesis of quinine a number of times over the years. The May 10, 1944, issue of C&EN joined many other publications—including the New York Times and Life, Business Week, and Newsweek magazines—in announcing that Robert B. Woodward and William E. Doering had completed the total synthesis of quinine. Although never put to practical use, this was hailed as a huge achievement, especially given the times. World War II had cut the Allies off from the natural source of quinine, the bark of the cinchona tree growing mainly on Java. Quinine was then the only effective treatment for malaria, a disease that struck down many Allied troops fighting in the Pacific Theater.
The May 7, 2001, issue of C&EN contained a story, "Quinine Revisited," by Maureen Rouhi, then a senior editor and now deputy editor-in-chief, and an editorial, "Setting the Record Straight," by Madeleine Jacobs, then editor-in-chief and now ACS executive director and CEO. The thrust of these pieces was that the Woodward and Doering synthesis of quinine was a myth. Another towering figure in the history of synthetic organic chemistry, Gilbert Stork, an emeritus professor at Columbia University, had just published the first completely stereoselective total synthesis of quinine, and he maintained, as he had for some time, that, given the historical record, Woodward and Doering had neither synthesized quinine itself nor completed a "formal" synthesis of the molecule.
Halford reports on Seeman's effort to uncover the truth about the work of Woodward and Doering on quinine. She also captures the enthusiasm that Seeman, an organic chemist and tobacco alkaloid expert, has for the history of chemistry. Seeman's conclusion on quinine? Read Halford's captivating story. (You can access Seeman's full paper through C&EN Online.)
Chemists often do not appreciate the history of their discipline. Oh, they care about precedent, and they certainly want their work cited, but precedent and citations are dry and dusty.
History is about people, their passions and ambition and faulty memories. Listen to Halford: "For me, the best thing about working at C&EN is chatting with chemists whose work I've admired since I was a student, work that made me want to study chemistry in the first place," she says. "Not only did this story give me the chance to speak with some of my own heroes, it also gave me the opportunity to see them just as they were starting on the path of their life's work, at a time when their futures were uncertain and they were so full of ambition and passion for their chemistry."
C&EN is the product of the work of 55 full-time journalists, most of them trained as chemists, pursuing their profession. We're proud of the first draft of history we produce each week. We hope, too, that our stories reveal some of the human element of chemistry that future historians of science will try to capture in writing their definitive accounts of chemical discovery. Every now and then, we'll even acknowledge that a historian of science has generated some real news.
Thanks for reading.
Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.
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