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The Decline of Home Chemistry Sets



Over the span of my lifetime, I have witnessed the death of a British custom. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, British community pharmacists, used to sell chemicals from their pharmacies for home chemistry sets or home laboratories.


I used to tinker with these sets myself as a child. Most contained simple inexpensive inorganic chemicals and apparatus, such as test tubes and funnels. Examples are


My first experiments were in my parents’ kitchen; they soon banished me to their garden shed. A book called “Chemistry Experiments at Home for Boys and Girls” was my favourite bedtime read.


Because the decline of these chemistry sets happened over my lifetime, I could ask the people involved (“informants”) the reasons for the change; historians who were not alive during events, despite their most meticulous and scholarly endeavours, can, at root, only offer an informed opinion. Around 2019, I reviewed oral and other pertinent pharmaceutical history, including legal, social and economic contexts, about the custom of the supply of chemicals from community pharmacies. My review included interview data with expert informants (retired pharmacists) and nostalgic blog entries from “real chemists” (not pharmacists) who had experimented at home when young. Interviews included about the birth, growth and, especially, decline of the custom.


British pharmacists’ have a wide variety of antecedents; they helped me understand the sales of chemicals. Pharmacists in Britain have a more convoluted history than elsewhere in Europe. British antecedents may include individuals who combined the roles of medicine man and magician; they do include chronologically, alchemists (some of whom were also astrologers), chymists [sic], spicers and pepperers, mercers and grocers. Those grocers had (and arguably retain) a “bazaar” tendency to sell anything for a profit. Chemists and druggists, apothecaries, pharmaceutical chemists and finally pharmaceutist (seldom used) or most commonly pharmacist followed. Tellingly, in the 1960s, the general public called most pharmacists’ workplaces “Chemists’ (shops)”. Individuals were listed under a “Register of Pharmaceutical Chemists”. Such a list first included me in 1968. (This discussion, for simplicity, omits the university-educated physicians; they jostled to also “earn their bread”, and this continues today.)


So, what happened? Purchasing chemicals is now generally online instead of from physical pharmacies. Home deliveries are easier, and more convenient; they cut out the pharmacist intermediary. Many brick-and-mortar shops are losing retail sales to online providers. Maybe pharmacies no longer supplying chemicals is “the canary in the mine”: a harbinger of the demise of all high street retailing as we know it.


Additionally, young people today have different technologies to explore. cyberspace may be more attractive. Many movies and so on of expertly performed experiments, presented with cinematographic flair, jostle with other attention-captivating content. Notably, computer video-games are participative and addictive. Social media and so on allow an alternative life to be lived in cyberspace that that may offer satisfactions that an individual’s position in corporeal society cannot. An extreme illustration is that a poor person may, as a gamer, be wealthy or even godlike in power. Such engrossing instant stimulation and gratification may increase even more with virtual and augmented reality, deepfakes, generative pre-trained transformers (such as ChatGPT) and picture generators (such as Midjourney) that produce astoundingly believable simulations of human cognition and creativity. I note, as someone who used four (significant) figure log tables for scientific calculations in the 1960s, that future progress relating to artificial intelligence (AI) and so on may be very rapid.


Yet I still suggest that, presently, physically doing something yourself such as bird-watching through binoculars, viewing astronomical objects through an amateur telescope, cooking vegetables that you have grown yourself or mixing green copper sulphate and colourless sodium hydroxide solutions to produce a light blue (solid) precipitate: copper carbonate, feels, using a little word from the Anglo-Saxon, real. Using a longer (Latinate) word, personal experience has verisimilitude.




Such corporeal things, like you’d find in a home chemistry set, have, to use an anthropologists’ term, thinginess. Talismans are an important illustration. In pharmacy and pharmaceuticals, things include chemicals (active pharmaceutical ingredients) or biologicals (live vaccines, leaches and “sterile” maggots being extreme illustrations), medicines (even placebos), shelves, mortars and pestles and spatulas.


But an extra factor influences pharmacists. Some pharmacists perceive that the sale of chemicals and so on is insufficiently clinical. Clinical elements have been emphasised in pharmacists’ education, continuing professional development and practice for about a generation. On occasion, around the 1960s, pharmacists (like me) who were more interested in the substance of medicines themselves were labelled as “dinosaurs”. British pharmacists now routinely inject such as influenza and Covid-19 vaccines and are expected to advise on a wider range of health conditions; examples are earache and uncomplicated urinary tract infections in women, to reduce pressure on general medical practitioners. An increasing number of pharmacists prescribe on the (British) National Health Service.


Bright blue crystals of (inorganic) copper sulphate [copper (11) sulfate pentahydrate] of fond memory, no matter how glittering, and are just too elementary in today’s pharmacopoeia; that is increasingly tilted towards the huge (organic) molecules of biotechnology, genetic engineering, targeted therapies and personalised medicine.


Being considered a “clinician” rather than “just” making and handling pharmaceuticals seems more prestigious and may well command a higher salary. Indeed, there are signs that community pharmacists will return to their mid-19th century position as “physicians” for the ordinary people. Then, only the wealthy could afford physicians. Ordinary people patronised chemists’ shops rather than being patronised by the higher-status physicians.


However, crucially, no matter how high quality the advice and so on about medicines are, communication alone is impotent to help patients. They have corporeal bodies—masses of mammalian flesh, bone, blood and so on—with which the masses of empirical medicines must interact. No medicine means no interaction means no cure. For example, all the advice, such as completing the course, about an antibiotic being used against an infection is useless if the material of the antibiotic is not available.


But pharmacists are losing familiarity with the compounding of medicines from drugs (active pharmaceutical ingredients). Put differently, as handling APIs becomes less and less familiar, pharmacists become more and more uneasy about handling APIs. So, they avoid it. Handling then becomes even less familiar in a vicious feedback spiral. Knowing the heft required by their hand to transfer a quantity of powder on a spatula fade from memory. So does selling and stocking chemicals, once regular occurrences; they have become less and less familiar, even peculiar.


That feedback spiral is entangled with two others. First, young people know that pharmacies do not supply chemicals (including APIs) so do not request them. Demand is reduced so, in turn, stocks are reduced and removed. Secondly, parents who have not done home chemistry will not socialise their children with the attitude that home chemistry is what you do, so children do not. So, history moves on, one generation at a time.


Harm to the public and legal punishment of pharmacists who had supplied chemicals, that terrorists subsequently used, outweigh possible benefits. They include those experiments at home that may stimulate scientific interest that might culminate in outstanding scientific contributions.


Acknowledgements

I am very grateful to all expert informants. They included a medical practitioner, pharmacist academics, retired pharmacists, Royal Pharmaceutical Society library, museum and support staff and a science teacher.

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