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August 2001
Vol. 10, No. 08,
pp 32–34, 37.
Today's Chemist at Work
Focus: Career/Salary/Employment


A chemist is trustworthy, helpful …

For 90 years chemistry and scouting have gone hand in hand, educating kids and stimulating careers.

Camping. Canoeing. Climbing. These are badges or skills one usually associates with scouting. Earning badges has been an integral part of the scouting movement from the beginning. In addition to honing skills in the outdoors or handicrafts, badges offer an opportunity to explore future careers. Indeed, the “skill” of chemistry has been a scouting mainstay for 90 years and counting. What does chemistry have to do with scouting? One may as well ask why an axe gets rusty when left in the rain, or why baking soda extinguishes a campfire.

The Boy Scout chemistry merit badge turns 90 this year, and is one of only a few badges that survive from the original 57 introduced in 1911. Although the Girl Scouts do not have a chemistry badge as such, they have always highlighted science and technology in their programs as well. Both place an emphasis on “doing”, rather than just “knowing”, providing increased satisfaction from the learning experience.

Scouting organizations have long depended on the professional chemistry community for advice and guidance in designing their science-related programs. In turn, interaction with Scouts remains a popular outreach opportunity for individual chemists, the chemical industry, and chemical societies.

The Origins of Scouting
The Boy Scout movement was founded in Great Britain in 1908 by a then cavalry officer, Robert S. S. (later Lord) Baden-Powell. In 1908, Baden-Powell wrote Scouting for Boys, in which he described many games and contests that he had used to train cavalry troops in scouting. In short order, the book became popular reading among the boys of Great Britain. Baden-Powell had originally intended his ideas to be used by existing youth organizations in Britain, but it soon became clear that a new movement had come into being. By 1910 Boy Scout troops were established in Sweden, Mexico, Argentina, Canada, Australia, and South Africa.

During a business trip to London in 1909, Chicago publisher William D. Boyce lost his way in a dense fog. A boy came to his aid and, after guiding Boyce, refused a tip, explaining that, as a Scout, he would not take a tip for doing a good turn. Intrigued and inspired by this gesture, Boyce arranged to meet with Baden-Powell to learn more. As a result, Boyce incorporated the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) in February 1910. Today, BSA units boast more than 6 million members in the United States and 27 million worldwide.

Baden-Powell, with the assistance of his wife, Olave, also founded the “Girl Guides”, a companion organization to the Boy Scouts. Juliette Gordon Low, an American living in England, befriended the Baden-Powells, and helped to form a small troop of Girl Guides in Scotland and two in London. Low returned to the United States and organized the nation’s first troop of Girl Guides in Savannah, GA, in March 1912. In 1913 she established a Washington, DC, headquarters (later moved to New York City), and the organization, later dubbed the “Girl Scouts of America”, grew rapidly. Today more than 2.7 million girls, ages 5–17, participate in scouting worldwide.

A Plethora of Badges
Earning badges has been an integral part of the Boy Scout and Girl Scout programs since their founding. Today Boy Scouts can choose from more than 100 different merit badges in subjects ranging from “A to Z”, or at least “A to W”, Agribusiness to Woodwork. The chemistry badge is 1 of only 28 badges that remain from the original 57 introduced in 1911. Since then, more than 240,000 Boy Scouts have earned the chemistry merit badge. Statistics maintained by the BSA national office indicate that interest in the badge remains strong, with 3000–4000 Scouts earning it each year. It is now one of seven “physical science” merit badges; the others are atomic energy, computers, electricity, electronics, energy, and space exploration. Over the past 90 years, the requirements for earning the chemistry badge have changed, often reflecting changes in the industry itself. Apart from fabric and color changes common to all the badges, one thing has remained constant: the basic design of the chemistry badge has always been a partly filled retort flask.

1911 Requirements for Boy Scout Merit Badge
  • Define physical and chemical change. Which occurs when salt is dissolved in water, milk sours, iron rusts, water boils, iron is magnetized, and mercuric oxide is heated above the boiling point of mercury?
  • Give correct tests for oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, chlorine, and carbon dioxide gases.
  • Could you use the above gases to extinguish a fire? How?
  • Why can baking soda be used to put out a small fire?
  • Give tests for a chloride, sulphide, sulphate, nitrate, and carbonate.
  • Give the names of three commercial forms of carbon. Tell how each is made and the purpose for which it is used.
  • What compound is formed when carbon is burned in air?
  • Tell the process of making lime and mortar from limestone. Why will fresh plaster harden quicker by burning charcoal in an open vessel near it?

From the Handbook for Boys (Boy Scouts of America: New York, 1911). Current (rev. 1996) requirements for the chemistry merit badge can be found on the Web at www.meritbadge.com/bsa/mb/034.htm.

Requirements for earning the chemistry merit badge were printed in the first Boy Scout manual, the Handbook for Boys, published in 1911 (see sidebar). No additional guidance was provided, and Scouts found themselves left to their own initiative and resourcefulness in seeking information. In 1916, the BSA began producing “merit badge pamphlets.” These compact printed aids helped the boys and their counselors to meet badge requirements. At less than 30 pages, the early chemistry pamphlets were brief, but they offered a good primer in the basic principles of chemistry. The current edition, at 80 pages, offers a survey of analytical, inorganic, organic, physical, industrial, environmental, and biochemistry. Highly readable and well illustrated, the pamphlet can serve as an excellent introduction to chemistry for any young person.

Although the requirements for the badge have evolved over the years, they have followed a basic pattern: exploring chemistry as a future vocation, demonstrating a basic knowledge of chemistry and the scientific method, and applying that knowledge to the “scouting life”. For example, in discussing chemistry as a career choice, the 1926 pamphlet listed tuition and living expenses at a few leading schools ($150 a year at Cornell!), expected salaries ($60 per month for a recent graduate to $10,000 per year for a research head), and types of work to be done. All of the pamphlets have described ways in which chemistry can be applied to scouting, especially in the outdoors: putting out fires, keeping utensils rust-free, purifying water, etc. A short essay in the 1937 pamphlet describes how the tenets of the Scout Law can be applied to life as a scientist: trustworthiness (“the chemist demands facts; data is recorded accurately”), cleanliness (“dirt and sloppiness ruin the reliability of experimental work”), and helpfulness (“the great chemist uses truths found by others, then shares his own”).

Science and technology are emphasized at all age levels in the Boy Scouts. Cub Scouts (second and third graders) can earn achievement awards in nature, computers, the environment, and water conservation. To earn the Webelo “Scientist” badge, fourth and fifth graders must satisfy a number of requirements, including demonstrating Pascal’s Law and growing crystals. Explorers, members of a Boy Scout program for young men and women aged 14–20, are generally organized into “Posts” around career themes such as law enforcement, aviation, or science and technology.

The Girl Scouts do not have a chemistry badge per se, but they have long emphasized science and technology in their own programs and “proficiency badges”. From Brownies on up, Girl Scouts now can earn nearly 20 science-related badges, including “Science in Action” and “Science Wonders”.

Langmuir’s Buffalo
Both the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts take great pride in former members who have distinguished themselves in their professional lives. Among them are presidents John F. Kennedy and Gerald Ford, Olympic swimmers Mark Spitz and Janet Evans, and astronauts Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride. Though never a Scout himself, eminent chemist and Nobel laureate Irving Langmuir, an avid outdoorsman, was also a prize-winning scoutmaster.

Soon after starting his career at General Electric in 1909, Langmuir befriended his neighbors, the Gibsons. Langdon Gibson, the patriarch of the family, shared Langmuir’s love of the outdoors and was a noted explorer himself, having participated in expeditions to the Grand Canyon and Greenland. At dinner one evening, Gibson introduced Langmuir to Daniel Carter Beard, a driving force behind establishing the Boy Scouts in the United States. The possibilities intrigued Langmuir, and he volunteered his services that very evening.

With the Gibson boys and their neighborhood friends as the nucleus, Langmuir led his troop on hiking, camping, and fossil-hunting trips in the Schenectady, NY, “wilderness”. He continued his work with the Boy Scouts for decades, and in 1950 received the Silver Buffalo, the highest honor bestowed by the National Council for service to the Boy Scouts of America. Several other chemical notables have won the Silver Buffalo, including Ted L. Johnson (president, Carajohn Chemical Co.) in 1986, and Lester E. Coleman (CEO, Lubrizol Corp.) in 1990.

Reaching Out
Scouting organizations have depended on the professional chemical community, including the American Chemical Society, for advice and guidance in designing their science-related programs. Among the most important of these contributions has been the preparation of the chemistry merit badge pamphlets. Albert C. Hale, identified as “Charter and Life Member of the Chemists’ Club and Past Secretary of the ACS”, penned the 1926 chemistry pamphlet. Robert F. Gould, longtime editor of Chemical & Engineering News, authored pamphlets in the 1960s and 1970s. The most recent edition acknowledges the contributions of several chemical professionals, many of them members of the Alpha Chi Sigma (AXsigma) professional chemistry fraternity.

Many ACS local sections and student affiliates offer chemistry merit badge programs as part of their public outreach and service programs. Indeed, Scouts are a favorite audience for demonstrations and activities during National Chemistry Week (NCW). During NCW 2000, the Indiana/Kentucky Border Section held an overnight Girl Scout “lock-in”. Over the course of an evening and the following morning, more than 70 girls earned badges by participating in various experiments at the University of Southern Indiana’s science labs. In October 2000, hundreds of Girl Scouts learned about polymers at a “Tech Girls 2000” event cosponsored by the Peoria (IL) section.

Chapters of AXsigma have been involved in programs designed to assist and guide Boy Scouts in chemistry merit badge work since the 1950s. The AXsigma Supreme Council thought so highly of this activity that, in the 1960s, in cooperation with the National Council of the BSA, it established merit badge work as a Grand Chapter activity. The AXsigma chapter at the College of Charleston (SC) has conducted chemistry merit badge classes since 1986. Its students and faculty helped more than 20 Scouts earn the badge.

The Future
To the casual observer, scouting badges may be only small pieces of cloth with colorfully embroidered designs, but their significance is as large as the interest of the young boy or girl who earned them. One hopes that science-related badges will remain a way to introduce scouts to chemistry, kindle in them a desire for continued study, and perhaps serve as the impetus for entering the chemistry field.


  • Chemistry (Merit Badge Series); Boy Scouts of America: New York, 1926; New Brunswick, NJ, 1937, 1960, 1965, 1973; Irving, TX, 1992.
  • Deaver, J. P.; Asleson, G. L.; Martion, E.; Metz, C. “Chemistry Merit Badge: A Project for a Service Organization,” J. Chem. Educ. 1992, 69(2), 131–132.
  • Murray, W. D. The History of the Boy Scouts of America. Boy Scouts of America: New York, 1937.
  • The Official Handbook for Boys. Applewood Books: Bedford, MA, 1996.

Acknowledgments. Tracy Anderson, BSA National Office, Irving, TX; Albert C. Holler, Minneapolis, chairman of the Scout Activities Committee, AXsigma; James P. Deaver, Chemistry Department, College of Charleston (SC).

James Schmidt has a B.S. in chemistry and is an associate pharmacologist in the drug metabolism department of Abbott Laboratories near Chicago. Send your comments or questions regarding this article to tcaw@acs.org or the Editorial Office 1155 16th St N.W., Washington, DC 20036.

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