Instrumental Developments

Peter Morris reviews Carsten Reinhardt’s Shifting and Rearranging: Physical Methods and the Transformation of Modern Chemistry.

By Peter Morris | December 29, 2008

Carsten Reinhardt. Shifting and Rearranging: Physical Methods and the Transformation of Modern Chemistry. Sagamore Beach, MA: Science History Publications, 2006. 438 pp. $49.95 cloth.

Many changes took place in the organic chemist’s laboratory between 1930 and 1980, but none greater than the introduction of electronic instrumentation. Widespread adoption of physical instrumental methods transformed the determination of complex structures. Structural studies were reduced from life-long avocations for senior professors, to a few days’ work for graduate students. Any attempt to describe the development of modern chemistry must take this momentous shift into account. Remarkably, the emergence of instrumental methods received little attention from historians until the 1990s, although it spans the history and sociology of science, the history of technology, and even business history. The complexity of the science and technology of these developments partly explains the absence of any significant historical literature. Furthermore, the displacement of classical methods by physical instrumentation was only completed in the 1980s.

Instrumental Developments

A mass spectrometer 9 (MS9) at the Humble Oil and Refining Company, Baytown, Texas

A mass spectrometer 9 (MS9) at the Humble Oil and Refining Company, Baytown, Texas.

Science History Institute

This story’s cast includes instrument manufacturers, chemists, physicists, universities, government agencies, and the chemical industry. Central to this transformation were individuals who freely moved—intellectually if not always physically—between instrument construction, operation, theory, practical applications, industry, and academia. They acted as a bridge between physics and chemistry and as a conduit between producers and users. Older chemists were largely skeptical of the value of these new methods (in part because many of them had become organic chemists precisely because they had fared poorly in math and physics). So innovators in this field became missionaries to younger chemists, as supervisors and lecturers and through papers and textbooks. Some members of the new guard, such as Robert Burns Woodward, stayed in traditional fields but used the new techniques; others, including Richard Ernst, devoted themselves fully to developing these methods, and others (notably Carl Djerassi) moved between the two extremes.

Can anyone produce a history of at least some of these techniques that would satisfy both the chemist’s need for technical detail and the methodological and historiographical sophistication demanded by the professional historian or sociologist? Carsten Reinhardt has pulled off this feat with his account of the development of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and mass spectroscopy (MS) in organic chemistry. To paint the technical picture, Reinhardt has used interviews, scientific papers, and archives—including the private archives of pioneers. His analysis ranges across the whole of the history and sociology of science, notably touching on the work of scholars Terry Shinn and Ian Hacking. His history largely rests on his description of the careers of key individuals—Herbert Gutowsky, James Shoolery, John Roberts, and Richard Ernst in the case of NMR, and Fred McLafferty, Klaus Biemann, and Carl Djerassi in the case of MS—but he puts them in the context of other chemists who worked in these areas. His account is particularly strong on the creation and development of new methods of studying the structure of organic molecules. In short, Reinhardt’s work is a superb and welcome achievement.

NMR is so central to the development of instrumental methods in organic chemistry that it had to be part of this account, but was it necessary to cover MS? It might have been interesting to compare NMR with a very different way of determining structure: X-ray crystallography. Conversely it might have been worthwhile to contrast expensive and complex NMR with the cheaper and easier-to-understand infrared spectroscopy, which was more important for most organic chemists until about 1975. It also might have been better to give the space over to a more comprehensive study of NMR, as it is the structure-determining method of 21st-century organic chemistry, and yet one that also has its weaknesses.

The main value of covering both NMR and MS is that it avoids generalizing about the instrumental shift in organic chemistry from one technique alone. While Reinhardt’s conclusions are useful, one wonders if he could have made generalizations without studying any particular technique in depth. Shifting and Rearranging is not an easy read, and Reinhardt’s careful description of technical detail can sometimes result in dense text. A more general approach to the history of instrumentation in organic chemistry might have enabled Reinhardt to analyze the development of this new field without the need to describe the technical development of each method.

Any reviewer could point out areas that Reinhardt might have covered, and I would have liked more on the work of Ray Freeman. However, no author could possibly cover everything, and Reinhardt makes an intelligent selection of subject matter and individuals. More seriously, the book lacks a subject index, although it has good person and company indexes and an excellent bibliography. Shifting and Rearranging is an outstanding, well-illustrated book and a step forward in documenting the history of modern chemical instrumentation. It deserves to be read by chemists and historians alike.