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February 12, 2007
Volume 85, Number 07
p. 104

World-Record Chemist

The American Chemical Society's photo archive, gently referred to as "THE MORGUE," is a large assemblage of rotating shelves set into a wall in the ACS headquarters library in Washington, D.C. It's chock full of photographs, some of which look like they date back to the invention of the camera itself. It's good to sit and look through these old pictures sometimes.

While recently browsing through antiquated folders looking for a photo of Gilbert N. Lewis for an article on chemical bonding, I was stopped by a black-and-white photo of a serious-looking young woman in a lab. The back of the photo indicated that this was Diane Leather, a "microanalyst determining the nitrogen content of a sample." There was no mention of where she worked or when the photo was taken.

Keystone Press Agency (Both)
Leather: Tough runner.

A few photos later, I came across the same serious-looking young woman crossing the finish line to win a track race. The back of this photo noted that Leather had just broken the women's world record for 880 yards in a time of two minutes and nine seconds. I had to find out more.

It turns out Leather's record run was in June 1954, when she was 21 and working in the chemistry department at the University of Birmingham, in England. A month earlier, she had become the first woman to break five minutes for the mile, which she accomplished just three weeks after her fellow countryman Roger G. Bannister ran the first sub-four-minute mile. Leather went on to break a number of other track records, and she was a four-time British national cross-country champion.

But what happened to that chemist in the photo? An article posted a couple of years ago on the website of the Birchfield Harriers, her former track club, provides a few details.

Leather married in 1959, becoming Diane Charles, and soon retired from racing and started raising a family. Charles and her husband have four children and nine grandchildren. She apparently gave up her chemistry career in order to be a stay-at-home mom. Attempts to track down and speak with Charles, who would now be in her early 80s, have not been fruitful so far.

Public-Relations Recall

C&EN staff regularly get hit with e-mails and faxes about all manner of things from public-relations firms and press offices. Every so often, an ODD PACKAGE will show up. One such package addressed to yours truly contained a cushion-sized piece of foam. It was a pitch by a public-relations firm to announce Cargill's new BiOH brand of "all-natural" polyols (compounds with multiple alcohol groups) made from soybean oil. The bio-based polyols are being marketed as a green alternative to petroleum-based polyols. Polyols are combined with isocyanate to make flexible polyurethane foams for the furniture, bedding, and automotive industries.

The package as received encouraged the recipient to remove the foam from the box and "sit on it to see how comfortable this natural alternative can be." It did feel pretty good.

A couple of days later, the phone rang and a harried voice asked if I had received "the package." I replied in the affirmative and said all was well and good. In a calmer voice, I was informed that there had been a mistake in the mailing. I was told to expect a letter with a prepaid FedEx label and asked if I could kindly return the package.

Due to a production error, the wrong type of pins had been used to attach a label to the foam. Instead of small straight pins, "floral" pins had been used. These pins look like heavy-duty, inch-long staples. I knew what they looked like, because I removed the label and pins before I sat down. But it seems some unfortunate others who had received the package did not. I was encouraged to keep the news release and consider writing an article on the new product. This is it.

This week's column was written by Steve Ritter. Please send comments and suggestions to newscripts@acs.org.