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August 2001
Vol. 10, No. 08,
p 51.
The Chemist's Bookshelf
Felicia M. Willis
A very hot topic

The 13th Element: The Sordid Tale of Murder, Fire, and PhosphorusThe 13th Element: The Sordid Tale of Murder, Fire, and Phosphorus
John Emsley
John Wiley & Sons, New York, 2000, 327 pp, $24.95 hardcover ISBN 0-471-39455-6

The word phosphorus is derived from the ancient Greek words phos, meaning “light”, and phorus, meaning “bringing”. In nature, phosphorus occurs only in the oxidized form of phosphates, which are minerals in which each phosphorus atom is surrounded by four oxygens.

The 13th Element chronicles the accidental discovery of phosphorus more than 300 years ago. In this, the first biography of a chemical element, Emsley gives an especially detailed history of phosphorus, describing who, what, where, when, why, and how phosphorus was discovered.

In 1669, alchemy was medieval chemistry’s popular philosophy. It attempted to turn base metals into gold and searched for an elixir for longevity. At this time, an alchemist from Hamburg, Germany, Hennig Brandt, stumbled onto phosphorus while heating residues of urine in his search for the philosopher’s stone. Originally, the philosopher’s stone was believed to be the chemical that changed base metals into silver or gold, also referred to as the power of projection.

Phosphorus is included in several products and has many different applications. In the 1800s, for instance, it was used as an aphrodisiac. A popular use for phosphorus has been as the main ingredient in matches. This book tells the history of John Walker, the trained surgeon working as a pharmacist who formulated a substance with phosphorus that would detonate when struck on a rough surface. He glued this substance onto thin splints of wood, thereby making what were called “lucifers”, now known as matches.

Phosphorus can also be found in food, medicine, and nerve gas. The burn damage caused by phosphorus in World War I was devastating. During World War II, the Nazi’s turned phosphorus into chemical agents more powerful and deadly than any other gas.

The 13th Element discusses the theory of spontaneous human combustion resulting from phosphorus. It’s interesting to note that most scientists and fire experts refuse to accept the idea of spontaneous human combustion. But there are those who believe it is a genuine phenomenon, and many well-documented cases seem to defy any other explanation. The author admits that he is skeptical of spontaneous human combustion. Even so, he devotes an entire chapter to the phenomenon and gives explicit details about several occurrences.

Phosphuretted hydrogen was the name given to a gas that seemed to explain spontaneous human combustion to chemist Gengembre. In 1783, Gengembre heated phosphorus in potassium hydroxide. As the gas escaped from the apparatus where it was being held, it immediately caught fire. Gengembre blamed the fire on phosphorus without realizing that although the gas is predominantly phosphane (PH3), which is not flammable, it also contained a second gas, diphosphane (P2H4), which is highly flammable.

Several examples from both sides of the spontaneous human combustion argument are included in the book, including an account of the fate of countess Cornelia Baudi of Cesena, Italy, in 1731. When a maid found the Countess, her remains included a pile of ashes with her legs still recognizable. From her feet to her knees, her stockings were not even singed, according to the leading scientific journal of the time, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. The journal went on to say that the back of her skull and chin were burnt to ashes, and three fingers were blackened, but the rest of the countess was perfectly intact. The bedroom was covered with soot, but nothing else had been burned. Phosphorus was named as the culprit.

The 13th Element records with great detail the 300-year history of phosphorus. It includes characters and quotes from several different authors and playwrights such as Charles Reade, Ashburton Thompson, Michael Frayn, Isaac Asimov, and Charles Dickens, just to name a few.

Among the other chapters of interest in the book are “Out of Alchemy”, which discusses how phosphorus was invented, and “The Cost of a Box of Matches”, which details the severe damage occurring in people exposed to phosphorus for long periods of time. Emsley gives a detailed look into the history and folklore surrounding phosphorus with The 13th Element, and he includes a number of sources that can help anyone interested in quenching their curiosity about this chemical.

More for the Shelf
Phosphorus (The Elements) by Richard Beatty (Reading level: Ages 9–12) Benchmark Books, 2000

Phosphates in Food by Ricardo A. Molins CRC Press, 1990

The Role of Phosphorus in Agriculture by Khasawme Amer. Society of Agronomy, 1981

Topics in Phosphorus Chemistry by Edward J. Griffith Krieger Publishing Co., 1977

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