Discoveries in chemistry have changed the way we live. The subject’s contribution to biology, medicine, engineering, and agriculture – amongst many other disciplines – has provided us with new technologies that have transformed the way we eat, communicate, and fight disease and injury. The achievements of some famous chemists cannot be overstated, as the modern world would not be recognisable without them.
We have a lot to thank our scientists for. Here are a few reasons why.
Back in 1928, Alexander Fleming, the Scottish doctor, pharmacologist, and bacteriologist, was running some experiments in his lab. He had been growing a certain bacteria in a petri dish when he noticed that one of his samples had contracted a mould. However, this wasn’t any mould. This mould was killing the bacteria in his experiment!
The mould came to be known as penicillin and became one of the most important medical discoveries ever made. But this wasn’t thanks to Fleming alone. When he published a paper about his research, no-one took much notice – apart from Howard Florey and Ernst Boris Chain, two biochemists who went on to build on his discovery.
The three scientists together won the Nobel Prize for their work on penicillin, whilst the mould itself is thought to have since saved two hundred million lives.
There are more accidental chemistry discoveries in our fun chemistry facts page!
You might not have heard of Taxol, but, really, you should have: it is one of the most effective treatments of cancer in the world. This drug works by preventing cells from dividing, which ultimately leads to the death of the cell. For cancer, whose cells notoriously divide very rapidly, Taxol is like a poison.
It was discovered back in the 1960s when Monroe Wall and Mansukh Wani were collecting tree samples as part of a US National Cancer Institute project to find new substances with which to fight cancer. These two medicinal chemists sampled – among many other trees and plants – the Pacific Yew Tree and found within it a substance toxic to cells. They called this paclitaxel, and, over the next decades, it underwent systematic laboratory research before it was finally used on patients in 1992.
Since then, paclitaxel has proved to be so effective that environmental campaigners have become worried about the danger to the Pacific Yew of the drug’s production. These days, people are studying the existence of the chemical in different biological sources.
The yew tree – from which taxol was discovered.
Once upon a time, if someone needed medical surgery, the only feasible way to ease the pain was to ply them with alcohol and hope for the best. It wasn’t until the middle of the nineteenth century that this really changed when William Morton – a dentist and amateur chemist – discovered that animals passed out after inhaling sulphuric ether. In 1846, Morton led an ostentatious show, when he performed dental surgery on an anaesthetised patient in front of an applauding crowd.
Whilst, after this, Morton was always to claim that he was the discoverer of anaesthesia, this isn’t strictly true. Opium, and alcohol itself were themselves effective substances for pain relief, and a type of ether had been used way back in 1525, by Paracelsus.
It seems obvious to us now that, when you heat up food or drink, you kill the bacteria in it. But this knowledge is not something that we have always had.
Whilst it is a process that people had studied in the past – in twelfth-century China, in sixteenth-century Japan, and in Italy in the 1700s – Louis Pasteur is the man who has been awarded the honour of discovering it, because he linked heat to the death of bacteria. Nowadays, his is definitely the most famous exploration of the subject, and it his name and biography associated with its scientific origin.
Pasteur’s discovery, apparently when he was on holiday in 1864, was made when he heated wine, but the process – pasteurisation – has since become primarily associated with milk. This is a substance that is known to be a common breeding ground for very dangerous bacteria. Whilst many people still choose to drink it unpasteurised, we have Pasteur to thank that we can drink milk without becoming ill.
Eighty percent of the air we breathe is nitrogen – an element essential for life. Yet, because nitrogen is so unreactive, chemically speaking, our bodies – and other plants and animals – have needed to develop complex biological methods to extract the element from the air.
But at the turn of the twentieth century, scientists were trying to develop artificial methods of nitrogen extraction – for the development of agriculture (plants need nitrogen to grow!) and for the development of weapons. Previously, they had been sourcing nitrogen from bones and from animal faeces. One of these methods – the most energy and labour efficient – was proposed by Fritz Haber and was made into a massive industry process by a Carl Bosch – hence the name!
This process is one of the most important discoveries in the history of human civilisation. The process has allowed agriculture to quadruple in efficiency – meaning there would be four times more farmland across the globe without it – and has been the force that has allowed for the growth of the human population over the last century.
Without the Haber-Bosch process, we wouldn’t be able to feed everyone on earth.
Plastics are absolutely everywhere: in mobile phones, cars, almost everything in your kitchen, and they constitute plastic bags, toys, even most of our clothes. But do we know who invented them? Sort of.
Whilst plastics are most often synthetic – namely manmade – the similar category of chemical compounds, polymers, are naturally occurring. So, invention, in this case, is a tricky term, because something like plastic – rubber – had been used by American populations before Europeans even knew what America was. Find out more about compounds in our chemistry dictionary!
However, the first person to construct a man-made plastic was Alexander Parkes, in 1855, who created the rather daftly named Parkesine. An inventor, Parkes intended for this plastic to be used as a waterproof coating for fabric clothes.
Whilst he and his business went bankrupt, Parkes’s invention kickstarted the plastic industry. In 1907, an American chemist, Leo Baekeland, created another humbly named plastic, Bakelite, which was simply a malleable chemical substance made from two other chemicals.
Soon after, Bakelite began to be used in all sorts of machines, and the world of plastic that we know now was born.
One of the most important discoveries in chemistry in the last half a century has been liquid crystal display, or LCD, screens. Whilst this might sound banal, think about it. Smartphones and social media etc have revolutionised our lives, but these have only been possible because of the LCD screen – a screen that is lightweight, small, and that you can fit in your pocket. The culture in which we walk around with our phones and laptops all the time could not have thrived without this technology.
Whilst scientists were aware of the benefits of liquid crystal back in the 1960s, it was then believed that the technology didn’t work at anything less than a very high temperature – to keep the crystal liquid! But the British Ministry of Defence wanted screens in their vehicles that were not so massive as old TVs used to be, so they commissioned a chemist – George Gray – to study the phenomenon. His research invented a particular molecule that functioned at a lower temperature, and it is this innovation – the 5CB molecule – that could be found in most LCD screens since.
Fear a world without phones? You have the discoveries of chemistry to thank.
Marie Curie is the scientist most famously associated with the discovery of radioactivity. Yet, she was part of a team of chemists and physicists who were working on x-rays, radiation, and radioactive chemicals like uranium and radium.
Radioactivity was actually discovered by Henri Becquerel, who was examining why certain materials glow in the dark. He noticed that uranium – something we now know to be highly radioactive – changed the colour of light-sensitive sheets, even when there was a paper layer between the sheet and the element. He realised that this material must have been emitting something that he could not see with his eyes.
Curie’s particular contribution was to discover polonium and radium, and to give the process the name ‘radioactivity’, something that was caused by the breakdown of particular atoms. Her legacy was to put to use Becquerel’s discovery to the purpose of fighting cancer. As a chemist and physicist, she became the first – and she still is the only – person to win the Nobel Prize in two sciences.