Chemical Nostalgia: My grandfather’s (lethal) legacy

Chembark and Seearroh have been indulging themselves in a bit of chemical nostalgia and so I thought I’d pitch in.

My story doesn’t revolve around a conference or lab experiences, but instead its a tale of how my grandfather’s pipettes found their way into a pot of odds and ends that sits on my desk. The story involves a legacy that had the potential to kill me, much of my family and probably a good few neighbours, but despite that I can’t help feeling respect and nostalgia for my grandfather every time I pull a pencil out of the mug that it shares with his old lab tools.

My grandfather was one my greatest scientific influences. He was a horticulturist who believed in organic food production decades before it became a mainstream movement. And he shared his love for plants and all things natural with me. When I was a kid he’d show me the edible plants in the woods or we’d lay down on our bellies gazing at the pond life which we’d then catch and  examine under his microscope. But it was his laboratory (where he analysed chemical compositions of soils) that he built in a old building on his small-holding that really grabbed my attention. To my 10 year old self it was a fascinating  Alladin’s cave of strange instruments, bottles and weird muddy mixtures.

Jump forward a few years and my grandfather could no longer keep on top of his small-holding, but despite his failing health and advancing years his fascination for the natural world was undeterred. I’d still find him flat on his stomach, head over the edge of the bank of a pond or river gazing at the life whizzing around  just inches from his nose.  And he’d  maintained his passion for discovery, so something as mundane as lack of lab space wasn’t going to put him off his research. The answer was simply to move the contents of his lab, lock-stock-and-barrel, to his apartment.

I discovered this one man research station, situated in a high rise block of flats, on the weekend of his funeral, when I joined the rest of my family to clear his four room apartment. Upon opening the door my jaw hit the floor, the place  was like some strange hybrid between a domestic abode and a scene from a 60’s B-movie about a mad scientist. Sharing the kitchen surfaces with all the usual appliances were pH meters, hot plates, pipettes, strangely labelled bottle and bags upon bags of soil samples. Likewise the living room; its bookshelves were crammed with bottles, jars and canisters of chemicals of every description.

This was clearly going to be no ordinary house clearing.

Not that the rest of my family saw it that way, they were already busy opening bottles and upending them into the kitchen sink. I pointed out that this probably wasn’t a good idea. The causally reply, whilst the contents of another vessel disappeared down the plug hole, was that they were sure my grandfather would have labelled anything dangerous with appropriate warnings. A cursory glance around the kitchen quickly dispelled this optimistic notion and I put a firm stop to the favoured disposal method.

A day later I had sorted everything out into three categories: Category 1, mostly harmless (salts, some buffers etc). Category 2, most definitely not harmless (concentrated acids and such like). And the third category  I called  “What the f*** has he got here!”

In this last group there were such delights as a 5 litre jar containing oil and about 1kg of white crusty cubes. These turned out to be sodium metal, which, judging from my mother’s exclamation upon seeing it; “Oh, I remember that, he used to play with it when were kids!” , was at least 50 years old.

But the sodium wasn’t the worst of it, oh no. The winner of the prize for the worst thing to leave to your grandchildren to clear up after you’re gone went to the solutions of potassium cyanide (apparently in years gone by he had used it to fumigate greenhouses; simply place a little in a dish, pour on the acid and run. Then come back a few hours later (after having carefully aired the place) and hey presto there’s not a bug or beasty in sight). When I discovered this little gem (well not particularly little, there were litres of the stuff (concentration unknown)), I re-ran the whole disposal down the sink incident in my mind and gulped. The thought of the KCN mixing with the acids in the U-bend really didn’t bear thinking about.

The rest of the week was spent gingerly driving the agglomeration of bottles and jars to a rather surprised but very helpful university chemistry department for disposal. Although I do wonder if maybe we should have slipped some of them into grandfather’s casket…

A little later, once the chemicals had been cleared out, the clothes had been boxed up for the charity shop and the furniture distributed around the family, there sitting on an otherwise empty kitchen work surface, was a pair of pipettes. I slipped them into my pocket.



  1. Really touching.

    I’ll be honest. My eyes welled up at the end. Kind of like what happens to me at the end of watching Field of Dreams.

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