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September 2001
Vol. 10, No. 09, p 7.
For Openers
The story of chromatography

Along with this issue of Today’s Chemist at Work, we’re delivering a supplement entitled Chromatography: Creating a Central Science. This is the third in a series of supplements published by the American Chemical Society over the past three years to explore various aspects of the scientific enterprise. Two years ago, we published Made to Measure, a history of commercial analytical instrumentation that began just before World War II with the development of the first pH meter by Arnold Beckman. Last year, we brought out The Pharmaceutical Century, our review of the history of drug development, starting with aspirin in 1899. Now we are pleased to offer a review of the history of chromatography, truly the central analytical technology of the last century. To quote from our opening chapter, “Chemistry has been central to … the progress of science and the ‘progress’ that it brought to the world at large. And central to that chemistry has been chromatography.”

Have you ever seen someone who truly excels at carrying out a particular analysis? In my experience, these people just seem to have a “feel” for the instrument. In working with a gas chromatograph, they knew just how to make the injection. If the analysis used capillary columns, they knew the initial temperature and the heating rate needed to achieve baseline separation of analytes from dross and debris. If the analysis depended on HPLC, these people knew when an HPLC guard column was about to fail. I have been privileged to know several such individuals over the course of my laboratory years. They were, and still are, top-flight chromatographers.

And even though instruments are easier to use now than ever, there is still an art to their use. Of course, computers make it much easier to set up and maintain a chromatographic system. Science has come a long way from the days when integration was performed by cutting out a peak from lined strip-chart recording paper and weighing it, or possibly using a planimeter, an analog-computing device developed in the early 1800s and still in use during my graduate school days in the 1970s. For a review of the current state of chromatography data systems, I call your attention to our annual review of CDS systems on page 30 of this issue. There’s not a planimeter in sight.

One of the things we try to do for you, the reader, is to provide background information on the laboratory technologies we use today. In addition, you can expect us to cover a broad array of topics each month. Because we touch on so many topics, our stories tend to be very focused. A typical TCAW feature is about 2000 to 2500 words long, which is not much space to both cover the current state of an instrumental technique and give it some historical context. That’s the reason why we produce these special supplements. In Chromatography, we can convey a feel for the history of traditional liquid and thin-layer chromatography as well as review the most modern of protein analyses done by HPLC-mass spectrometry.

Supplements such as Chromatography are produced in part to fulfill the American Chemical Society’s mission to advance chemistry. But I also have to say that these supplements are done because we who write them are former “lab rats” ourselves. We enjoy the library research and historical analysis because it is fun to know how science developed. I suspect that a fair number of you like to read about it as well. It’s no accident that our “Chemistry Chronicles” column is highly rated in the annual survey of TCAW readers.

We trust that you will both enjoy and be enlightened by Chromatography: Creating a Central Science, and we hope that all your analytes separate to the baseline.

James F. Ryan

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