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Lab Safety

Chemistry ghost stories

by Bethany Halford
October 28, 2018 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 96, ISSUE 43

 

Specters and spectroscopy

Test tubes go missing. Equipment gets glitchy. The fume hoods roar more loudly than normal. Chemists usually find reasonable explanations for laboratory peculiarities. But sometimes even the most skeptical scientists conclude their labs are haunted.

LaQuetta Purkiss, who manages prep for Texas Tech University’s general chemistry labs, tells Newscripts she’s seen three ghosts in the school’s chemistry building. One is a young woman dressed in clothing from the 1950s who walks along one hallway. Another is a chemistry professor who will speak or nod at Purkiss.

The basement is home to a third specter, who bears the likeness of a former graduate student. Purkiss recalls first seeing him when she was working on a nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy experiment. “He went into the connecting room, and I ran after him because no one was to go into that room without permission. I found myself standing in the dark and getting a really creepy feeling when I realized that he had walked through the door itself.”

Purkiss isn’t the only one to have a spirited encounter at the NMR spectrometer. Andrew R. Davis, a chemist at the Library of Congress, tells Newscripts he got an eerie error message when he was a graduate student performing an NMR experiment at 1 AM. The message read, “error code=I don’t sleep,” which Davis perceived as an “ominous warning from the troubled spirits forever trapped in the machine.”

 

Cass, the friendly ghost

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Credit: Bethany Halford/C&EN
Haunted: Spirits spook scientists.

Legend has it that the ghost of Father Frederick Cass once haunted the old chemistry building at the University of Prince Edward Island (UPEI). Cass was the first priest to teach chemistry at St. Dunstan’s University (which joined with Prince of Wales College to form UPEI). A benevolent soul, Cass’s ghost allegedly roamed the halls and labs, extinguishing unattended Bunsen burners and tidying up glassware.

“I myself heard the ghost many times,” notes Barry Linkletter, a UPEI chemistry professor who was an undergraduate at the school in the 1980s. “When you are alone late at night, and certain of that fact, you expect silence around you. But many times I heard footfalls so clearly on the stairs that I quickly cleared my working area ... and went looking for the security guard that I presumed was on his nightly rounds. Finding no one would cause a cold chill to climb my spine,” he writes in an email to Newscripts.

Linkletter believes the ghost may have met a fiery end when, in the late 1990s, a decades-old container of picric acid was discovered in the building’s chemical storage room. Picric acid, a nitrated aromatic compound, is a powerful explosive, and the school decided the safest way to dispose of the compound was to perform a “burn in place.” The resulting damage convinced the university administration to act on longtime plans to replace the building, Linkletter adds.

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A new chemistry lab was constructed, and the Cass building was renovated to house UPEI’s math department. “All the crisscrossed higgledy-piggledy asbestos-coated heating and drain pipes were ripped out,” Linkletter notes. “I think it was these rattling pipes that were truly the ghost of Father Cass. His footsteps have never been heard again.”

Please send comments, suggestions, and lab ghost stories to newscripts@acs.org.

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