The Department of Chemistry recently acquired a piece of Penn State history! A chemistry set that was issued to Penn State chemistry students in the early twentieth century was recently donated to the department. The set belonged to Penn State alumnus Paul Merkel, who earned a degree in chemistry in 1917, when the University was still known as the Pennsylvania State College. At the time, each student owned their own chemistry set containing the tools and chemicals commonly needed to perform experiments. This well-used kit was donated by Merkel’s granddaughter Susan Kennedy.
The chemistry kit is a representative example of the sets that were often issued to chemistry students in the early twentieth century. It holds dozens of vials that contain various chemicals and other substances needed to perform experiments, including many substances that students still use today. For example, the kit contains metal strips that are used to explore redox chemistry; reagents like potassium iodide, copper sulfate, sodium carbonate; and sodium nitrate. The kit even includes aluminum potassium sulfate dodecahydrate, which Penn State chemistry students synthesize during lab courses.
However, there are over forty items in the kit that are no longer used in chemistry education. “Among the contents there were highly toxic lead and mercury oxides, asbestos paper (which can cause lung cancer), and calcium fluoride,” notes General Chemistry Laboratory Supervisor Adam Herring. “Though calcium fluoride itself is not toxic, it would be very easy to make a very dangerous hydrofluoric acid solution out of it! While just about everything in the box could likely be used in industry, research, or even in teaching labs, most of them are not currently used in general chemistry labs here at Penn State today.”
As Herring explains, a lot has changed in chemistry education over the years. These days, materials used in experiments never leave the labs and are carefully stored and disposed of in accordance with safety regulations. “Since the days that this kit was used, much has changed in terms of student and environmental safety,” adds Herring. “For the past twenty-five years at Penn State, the focus in general chemistry has been on safe and cost-effective small-scale experiments. This reduces potential harm to students and the environment by reducing the amount of materials used as well as the toxicity... Because of the chemistry stockrooms that most schools have today, there is no need to send students home with chemicals.”
This being said, at the time, these chemistry kits served students well. After graduating from Penn State, Paul Merkel went on to a long and successful career as a chemist. Following graduation, he served during World War I before becoming the city chemist for Reading, Pennsylvania. While in this position, Merkel’s city chemistry team was responsible for nearly eliminating typhoid from Reading by ensuring cleaner water, purer milk, and better handling of sewage and garbage disposal for the citizens of Reading. The team introduced chlorination of city water in 1922 and also began a testing program to ensure that dairy products were safe for consumption. Merkel later founded a private analytical and consulting chemistry practice. His work is a true testament to the long and proud legacy of Penn State chemistry.
The Department of Chemistry thanks Susan Kennedy and the Kennedy family for their generous donation.