Nature Chemistry | The Sceptical Chymist

Mercury eyewash, anyone?

I imagine most or all of our readers have heard of Thomas Midgley, the chemist responsible for some ingenious solutions to refridgeration and engine knocking – unfortunately, they were CFCs and tetraethyl lead. Go and read the wikipedia for more on this fairly controversial character.

But I only just learnt that, back in ~1911 when he was working for Dayton Metal Products, he was the victim of a pretty nasty accident. The safety diaphragm on a hydrogen cylinder blew out and he was left with shards of metal in his eye. Although a doctor was able to remove the larger pieces, several much smaller fragments remained. As you might expect, this compromised his vision (and I imagine was rather painful) in one eye, which began to sympathetically affect the other one.

So what did Midgley do to remove these flecks of bismuth, tin and lead alloy? Why, by using fresh mercury as an eyewash of course! After just two weeks of application his eyes were fine again and the metal was removed.

My mind is fairly boggling at the idea of all of this…! All that I can say is: Kids! Wear those goggles/specs! Otherwise it might be your turn on the mercury fountain next…

Postscript: This brilliant story is a great example of how you can stumble across very interesting by the most unexpected pathways…Mat Todd had just suggested something interesting for us to cover in next month’s blogroll and for some reason I looked back through his Twitter feed. He’d retweeted something from ‘TastyMolecules’ (aka Martin Lersch from Khymos), which was a fairly brilliant dialogue between a chemist and his 3 year old daughter. ‘Who is this chemist?’ I thought to myself. I eventually discovered W. Stephen McNeil of the University of British Columbia Okanagan and this story is on his journal club page. You’ll note from the Ind. Eng. Chem. article that it doesn’t mention Midgley by name, so we only have McNeil’s word, which I’m prepared to take for the sake of a blogpost!


Neil Withers (Associate Editor, Nature Chemistry)


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