Dying at the Bench: The Hazards of a Chemical Career

Some days I seem to come across very few actual people in the parched wilderness of trade journals, biennial census reports of manufacturers, and bulletins of chemical societies  -- the archival terrain where I'm currently wandering. But of course, all of these things are full of people, even if they're very deliberately not raising their voices. It's a hazard to mistake all the statistical tables and formulas and price lists as things that have somehow shaken themselves free of human beings, that represent the effortless interactions of chemicals, the frictionless relations of markets.

But then, sometimes, I'll be on the trail of a name -- some minor analytical chemist, or some voluble manufacturer, who seems to hold a key or serve as a connection between things or ideas -- when, unexpectedly, I trip across the obituary and realize that I've been compiling a dossier on an actual person. Shaken, I realize that the person has taken on the same tone as the tables and graphs, has become one of my "historical actors," etiolated, unresistant, a pawn that I move around my paragraphs in service of my arguments. 

For the past couple of weeks, I've been researching methods for manufacturing synthetic vanillin around the turn of the twentieth century, especially processes that rivaled the patented techniques of the leading French and German manufacturers. And that's how I came across a small notice about Edward C. Spurge's premature death -- in the laboratory -- overcome by toxic fumes from his own chemical experiments. A reminder that, as with the fatal "dissection wounds" of nineteenth-century medical students, or Mme. Curie's radium-martyrdom, the pursuit of scientific knowledge can take its toll.

From The Niagara Falls Electrical Handbook, Being a Guide for Visitors from Abroad Attending the International Electrical Congress, St. Louis, MO, 1904. Published by the American Institute of Electrical Engineers.

From The Niagara Falls Electrical Handbook, Being a Guide for Visitors from Abroad Attending the International Electrical Congress, St. Louis, MO, 1904. Published by the American Institute of Electrical Engineers.

E.C. Spurge was one of first vanillin manufacturers in the US. Born in Essex in 1875 (or possibly 1874), a graduate of the Bloomsbury College of Pharmacy with a B.S. from London University, Spurge was a working chemist who specialized in what were sometimes called "fine chemicals." After putting in time with pharmaceutical and perfumery companies in England and Paris, he emigrated to the US in 1904. Two years later, he patented a method for synthesizing vanillin from isoeugenol (derived from clove oil), and founded the Ozone-Vanillin company in Niagara Falls around the same time to put his ideas into action.

Why Niagara Falls? The ozone-generating machines necessary for the process to work needed a reliable electric current, and Niagara Falls, the center of the electrical and electrochemical industries in the U.S., was just the place.

In the wake of the 1906 Pure Food & Drugs Act, the ambiguous status of synthetic vanillin -- chemically identical to the compound that gave "real" vanilla its prized odor and flavor, yet legally declared an adulterant of "vanilla extract," an "unlike substance" -- meant that, even while demand increased, the prestige of the chemical was questionable. A triumph of synthetic chemistry, but disparaged as a "coal-tar" flavor by many pure food advocates. The Ozone-Vanillin Company tried to distinguish itself from its competitors -- and define its position relative to genuine vanilla extract -- by emphasizing the immaculateness of its product.

Take this advertisement from a 1914 issue of Simmons' Spice Mill:


"Ozone-Vanillin is not an imitation of nature, but an absolute reproduction of the natural aromatic principles of the vanilla bean by the combination of the very same elements which have hitherto been found only as blended in Nature's own laboratory.

Our method of manufacture is an improvement upon approved methods, so that we obtain a snow-white and absolutely pure vanillin by a harmless electro-chemical process."

Snow-white and absolutely pure! 

But Spurge was not alive to see this advertisement run. He died two years earlier, November 6, 1912, "at the bench" -- in the company laboratory, felled by fumes of hydrocyanic acid while working on a series of experiments to present at an upcoming meeting of chemists. Hydrocyanic acid is a solution of hydrogen cyanide and water; hydrogen cyanide was the chemical that would be used in Zyklon B. At the time of his death, Spurge was 37 years old. Several obituaries noted that he was survived by his wife, whom he had married earlier that year. 

Spurge was a practical chemist, a manufacturing chemist -- not an academic chemist. The honorific that he appended to his byline, F.I.C. -- Fellow of the Institute of Chemistry -- indicated "professional competence," not "full training." Nonetheless, his professional identity and the success of his synthetic chemical business were tied up with research, with continued experimentation, as was his collegiality with fellow chemists.

Who found his body? In 1908 testimony to the House Ways and Means Committee on vanillin imports, Spurge argued that American manufacturers needed tariff protection because of the scarcity of professional chemists in the US; instead, there were intelligent but unskilled workmen, who needed to be trained. Did one of these "intelligent but unskilled men" find his boss's body, in a small room full of precise glassware and toxic fumes? What exactly was Spurge working on?  What did he hope to prove? And what about the fate of his vanillin factory, on the American side of the falls, catalyzed by ozone, "the cleanest and most agreeable oxidizing agent known"?

The first mention of using ozone to synthesize vanillin from isoeugenol that I've found dates back to 1895, when two French chemists, Marius Otto and Albert Verley, received a patent to cover this method of production. I also found a remark about a Parisian factory -- I assume Verley's -- producing several kilos of vanillin a day this way. But the ozone-generating machine did not work properly, the yield was inconsistent, profits drooped, and they soon were forced to cease production. Spurge's method was intended as an improvement upon this original electrochemical method, but although his company survived him, it did not outlast him for long. A 1923 article in the journal Chemical and Metallurgical Engineering, reconsidered the processes used by Ozone-Vanillin, lamenting that "after expensive experiments, the method was abandoned, even as it seemed on the verge of success."

(Probably) Albert Verley, synthetic perfumer, student of Satie

(Probably) Albert Verley, synthetic perfumer, student of Satie

Albert Verley, one of the men who held the original patent, has another claim to distinction: he was Satie's only composition student. According to this, as a young man, Verley had dreamed of a career in music, but trained as a chemist; then a serious accident in the lab gravely damaged his right hand. (The hazards of a chemical career!) And so he parted from his piano, and instead devoted himself fully to chemistry.

He did well for himself as a manufacturer: he owned a factory outside of Paris that made synthetic perfume materials, including a renowned version of jasmine that he had developed. Satie's brother Conrad was a chemical engineer, and he may have been the one to make the introduction to the composer. Satie appears to have taken on this pupil mainly for money, not love, but Varley was not, apparently, without talent. Satie strongly recommended Verley's "strange piece" -- L'Aurore, which Satie had orchestrated -- in a 1916 letter to Varése. Verley also composed a ballet inspired by Edgar Alan Poe, Le Masque de la Mort Rouge, The Mask of Red Death, and launched the career of the young conductor, Vladimir Golschmann, by bankrolling a series of concerts of new music. 

Spurge certainly knew of Otto and Verley's method for turning clove oil into vanillin with ozone. He probably first learned of it while working as a chemist at the Societe Anglais-Francais des Parfums Perfecciones, in Courbevois, outside of Paris, the same town where Verley's operation was based. This must have been around the time, 1899, when Verley perfected his synthetic jasmine. What must it have been like, for Spurge, as a young man and a young scientist, strolling in the evening, outside of Paris, at the very coda of the nineteenth century, the suburban landscape faintly scented by the now-deathless odor of chemical jasmine?