Chemistry at Glasgow - 60 Years Ago
As part of the Chemistry history project, past members of the Department are invited to contribute their recollections and share their experiences of the way things were.
CHEMISTRY AT GLASGOW --- SIXTY YEARS AGO
Archie G. Clement (B.Sc. 1942)
In the beginning...
My first encounter with Glasgow University was in June 1938 when for two days, and in company with 399 others, I competed for a bursary to pay or part-pay for my prospective stay at Gilmorehill. Although I just scraped into the first quartile it was not enough to gain a bursary, but it may be worth noting that 9 out of the first 100 contenders subsequently graduated with B.Sc.(Hons.) in Chemistry. In October I presented myself at a room adjoining the Bute Hall and queued to pay my tuition fees of £23-12-6d. (£23.62) and was issued with a Fees Record Card by way of receipt. Payment was in cash and I cannot recall seeing any cheques being presented. It was the first time I had seen a £20 note (adjusting for inflation, worth about £620 in today's money). Exam fees of five guineas (£5.25) for the first year, two guineas for each of the second and third years, and no charge for the final year are recorded in April each year. As my home was not within daily travelling distance I acquired "digs" in Willowbank Crescent within reasonable walking distance where I was the only lodger. From second year onwards I moved a bit nearer and lodged at the top of Gibson Street where there were three other lodgers, none of them students.
In 1938 the Chemistry Department was located in the south-eastern corner of the East Quadrangle. Lecture rooms, offices, and possibly some senior laboratories were located on the ground and first floors. A staircase led down to an octagonal building, modelled on the monk's kitchen at Glastonbury Abbey. This was outside the quadrangle complex and at a lower level due to the slope of Gilmore hill. On the upper floor was a very large laboratory which seemed to me very crowded and a bit dilapidated. The lower floor housed storerooms, the Apparatus Exchange run by the Alchemist's club, possibly other laboratories, and an exterior door which provided a shortcut, known as Stink Alley, between the Lab and Engineering Dept. to the north-east gate on University Avenue.
The programme for an honours course in pure science in 1938 was three subjects at single level in the first year, the chosen subject at a higher level and one other subject at single level in second year and the chosen subject alone in third and fourth years. Most of those studying chemistry (including me) took Natural Philosophy, and Maths as singles in first year, and Botany in the second year. I believe there were just over a hundred in first year Chemistry and, although there was adequate space in the lecture room the laboratory was crowded. My memory is dim on the matter but I am sure we had two shifts Monday & Wednesday and Tuesday & Thursday afternoons with Nat Phil labs on the alternate days. Lectures were simpler, Nat Phil 9 -10 a.m., Chemistry 10-11, and Maths 11-12.
The long serving and very popular Regius Professor G.G. Henderson had retired at the end of 1937 and his successor was George Barger, Regius Professor at Edinburgh following posts in several of the colleges of London University. It was the custom for the Professor to give the first year lectures and Barger was a very good lecturer. Although taking notes from lectures was new to me, I had no difficulty with Barger's -unlike some other lecturers. He spoke distinctly and directly and got his message over with the minimum of repetition. There was not a lot of contact between the professor and first year students, but when there was I found him very unassuming and easy to talk to. He was a heavy smoker and had an amusing habit, if there was no ashtray at hand, of tipping the ash from his cigarette into a waistcoat pocket.
A shock was in store when we assembled for the first lecture after the Christmas vacation. The Principal (Sir Hector Hetherington) entered instead of the professor and informed us that Barger had died the previous Saturday of a heart attack when on holiday in Switzerland. He paid tribute to Barger and dismissed the class. For the rest of the session the lectures were given by senior inorganic lecturers since the bulk of the work in first year was inorganic. The principal of these was Dr. D. T. Gibson (known widely as Hoot after the film cowboy of the 1930s Hoot Gibson). He supervised the section of the laboratory to which I was allocated and I found him brusque, jovial, and not given to mincing his words, and I got on well with him. Others involved in lecturing were "wee Johnny" Robertson somewhat taciturn but with an unexpected turn of humour, and Drs. Blair and Wright with neither of whom I had much contact.
In June came our end year exams and I did quite well with Maths and Chemistry, but I still recall the horror with which I scanned down the class list at the Nat. Phil. Building until I found my name at 30%. I had just avoided a resit, but at school I had been used to the 60 to 80% range !
When we left for the 1939 summer vacation there was some uncertainty in our minds of what the future might have in store for us. I had been on holiday in Germany with my father in the summer of 1935, had seen Hitler Youth Camps in various places and once was corrected by members when taking an unauthorised shortcut when out walking, and had seen the parades through city centres - even given the nazi salute when prompted by an elderly waiter in cafe we were in - "you don't have to you know, but it might be unpleasant if you don't". Since then Austria and Czechoslovakia had been overrun and it was clear that that was not the end, but I doubt if any of us thought a full scale war would erupt before our return to University.
Preparations for war had gone ahead in the last few days of August with the distribution of respirators to all civilians, and the mustering of auxiliary services. Evacuation of women and children from large towns and cities began at the beginning of September and, in common with many students in rural areas, I helped in billeting evacuees from Clydeside. In my case (Dunoon) they arrived by steamer, were taken to a nearby hall, allocated accommodation by a local government officer, and conducted on foot to their billet by a volunteer who helped with luggage and children as necessary. In our house we had a mother with three children whose husband came down at weekends. With very little happening in the 'phoney' war they soon began drifting back, and ours had gone by the end of three weeks.
By then I had found that University would be starting as usual, that our year would continue on the normal course, but in subsequent years the course would be cut to three years by reducing the summer vacation. The staff had carried out the move to our new building (the earliest section of the present Joseph Black Building), during the vacation and we were delighted with the new facilities, light and uncrowded laboratories and well furnished lecture rooms.
After an initial period of uncertainty life settled down to something very similar to the first year. There were cinemas, theatres, concerts, and other social occasions and people soon adapted to the darkness in the streets, and on the trams and trains. There were Air-raid alerts but these usually passed off without incident.
The new regius Professor was J.W. Cook (later Sir James Cook, Principal of Exeter University) who came with the reputation of being the foremost chemist in the study of cancer. I saw little of him in second year as we studied mainly Organic and Physical chemistry, but he seemed more reserved than Barger and more serious. In Organic the outstanding character was the Gardiner Professor, T.S. Patterson, a long standing member of the Department whose retirement coincided with the conclusion of my studies at Glasgow in 1942. He was an unassuming character with a strong and subtle sense of humour. He held strong convictions and, after being reprimanded by a fastidious editor (Nature I believe) for starting a sentence with "But", he resubmitted the article commencing with "But a few years ago" and retaining the offending sentence. Another well authenticated instance was an article in the Journal of Chemistry into which he slipped the phrase "The capita, ego vinco: caudae, tu perdis principle is inadmissible in science." Patterson's background is typical of many well-known Organic Chemists of the period. After getting a degree at Glasgow he went to Germany, then the leader in the development of Organic Chemistry, and returned with a Ph.D. from Heidelberg. His main interest - at least in the period I was at Glasgow - was Optical Activity, and it was this area that I and several of my colleagues studied and produced theses for our finals.
Patterson' s other great interest was the History of Chemistry, and he lectured on this subject in, if my memory is correct, the second year. His lectures commenced with Greek philosophers and proceeded via Arab Scholars of the eighth century but as far as I can recall did not get beyond Paracelsus and Robert Boyle; the former appeared to have a considerable fascination for him. His popularity among the students was unquestionable, perhaps because of thoughtful little touches such as ending an apparently tricky question with the words "This is not a difficult question and there is no need to lose your head over it." The other members of the Department with whom I came in contact were Drs. Irene MacAlpine who was my demonstrator and John Loudon who supervised the other half of the Lab. Both were helpful and both had a good sense of humour.
At some time during this year those of us who lived in or near Glasgow were asked to volunteer as firewatchers to be on the spot if any firebombs landed and to tackle them until professional firemen arrived. A rota was evolved in which three students and one member of staff did one night's duty in the Chemistry Building about every three weeks. The students were the same on each occasion but the staff members varied presumably because of other commitments. A room was provided in the basement with three camp beds and teamaking facilities. The staff member slept in his office but joined us for a cup of tea. I remember one occasion Prof. Cook was on duty with us and one student was bold enough to ask him as the leading cancer scientist how long he reckoned it would be before a cure was found. About five years was the unexpected reply! Although we had several alerts during the three years in which I took part none resulted in enemy action. As a member of the OTC I also did a firewatching turn on their premises but can remember even less about it. Other members of the class were members of the Auxiliary Fire Service, and Air Raid Wardens in their home areas.
Organic Chemistry was the main subject this year accompanied by lectures in the History of Chemistry. The subject which I took as a single was Botany, and although I was not inspired by it must have done enough to pass the end year exam. I passed in Chemistry also and so I was able to progress to third year. In this connection I found that having opted for Organic Chemistry I was required to be proficient in Technical German (with the aid of a dictionary), so I and my colleagues enrolled for evening classes at the Commercial College, and in due course I emerged with a certificate to say that I had qualified in Technical German. In other words I could negotiate the pages of that repository of knowledge on Organic Chemistry known as "Beilstein"
The year ended with the evacuation of the British troops from Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain about to start. In a patriotic mood and like many of my colleagues I got a forestry job for the summer. In my case it was local and could be reached by a half hour's cycle run. I was lucky that it was a very fine summer, and as the work was on the outskirts of a village, could follow the course of the battle on the morning broadcasts. The work was mainly cutting and stacking timber and loading lorries, the hours were 7am till 6pm (4 on Saturday) with an hour's break and the pay (at 19 I was counted as a junior) was £2-2s (£2.10) for a 58 hour week.
In third year we studied Physical Chemistry. The lecturer was Dr. Stothert Mitchell, a small and rather serious man. This subject did not appeal to me and I cannot remember much of the lectures or the lab work, however I did get through the exams. I do not remember any of the class taking Physical Chemistry as their main subject. We also studied advanced Inorganic Chemistry, mainly the rare earths, and also lectures and lab work on Analytical Chemistry. For the latter the lecturer was Dr. Mair, a very mild character incapable of keeping order in class. He did get through the syllabus as we were all conscious of the need to get a pass at the end of the year, but the behaviour of the class inspired an ode in "the Alchemist" of which I can only remember the first lines:
"O Doctor Mair it grieves me sair
Tae see ye staunin idly there "
The Blitz on Clydebank....
A much more serious event took place in March 1941, and it so impressed me that I kept a diary of the three days concerned. A condensed version follows:
"Thurs March 13th. Siren sounded at 9.10 p.m. but I continued my studies expecting it to be quiet as usual. Got ready for bed just before 11, put my light out and opened the shutters to lower the top pane of the window slightly. A vivid orange flash followed immediately by another appeared over the park (Kelvingrove ). I slammed the shutter shut and stood aside, then the blast struck the building and there was the crash of glass. I quickly put on my clothes over my pyjamas and went into the hall where the rest of the household and others had congregated. Gunfire went on intermittently and after the 12 o'clock news I went downstairs to the close where some of the men had gathered. There was a red glow in the sky in the west over Gilmore hill. About 1.30 a vivid orange flash showed over the building opposite, and seconds later the blast struck with more falling glass and rattling the slates on the steeple of the church next door (corner of Gibson Street and University Avenue). We agreed that the bomb had landed on or near Great Western Road (actually Q. Margaret Drive ). Most of the shop windows in Gibson Street were now broken and the grocer on the ground floor of our building appeared and began to sweep up the glass about 2 a.m. (It was a fine moonlit night). I spoke to some fellow students who lived nearby and were going to Kelvin Way to see what had happened. As gunfire had now ceased I went up to bed but the ladies in our hallway waited till the all clear at 6.30.
Friday March 14th. Went to University via Kelvin Way and saw one crater in the road at the end of the bridge about 3 metres wide by 1 metre deep into which a small car had fallen, and another much larger crater in the bowling green. The side of the Art Gallery facing the park, the front of the university, and the houses I could see in Sauchiehall Street and Dumbarton Road had lost all their window glass. In the main block of the University one of the front doors had been blown open. Surprisingly the Chemistry Building did not have any broken windows but some internal roof lights were broken. Students from Clydebank and beyond were late in arriving, and a meeting of the council of the Alchemists Club scheduled for the afternoon was cancelled as it was doubtful if the president (from Clydebank) would be available - he did in fact turn up. About four o'clock I and a pal went to see the damage at Queen Margaret Drive. A single storey row of shops was levelled to the ground and the tenement next door had collapsed in a pile of wood and rubble from which smoke still emerged despite a fireman hosing it down. All along Great Western Road as far as Bank Street people were sweeping up glass from shopfronts and, on the trees along the river at Kelvinbridge, hung bits of paper and torn cloth from curtains and blinds.
About 6 p.m. I went on the underground to visit an aunt who lived on her own in Ibrox and was amazed to find that district entirely untouched. After I got back the sirens sounded at 8.30 and again we gathered in the hallway of the house. About 10 I went down to the close. Firing seemed more intense tonight and from time to time pieces of shrapnel fell in the street. A number of bomb flashes were seen but they seemed further away - possibly Maryhill or Springburn - as there was a longer gap between flash and arrival of the blast. This time we noted a rumble after the blast and conjectured that it was a collapsing building. By 2 a.m. it was quieter so I went to bed and slept till the usual time.
Sat. March 15th. Only ten turned out at the OTC parade (normally 30/40).
The two night raid on Greenock (I do not have a record of the date) did not affect Glasgow significantly although we did not see the students from that area (including one from the Chemistry class) for three days.
At some time during this year Dr. Benes, President of Czechoslovakia gave a lecture in the large Chemistry Lecture theatre. I do not know why that locus was chosen, nor who organised it - and I do not recall him receiving any honour from the University at that time. Publicity was minimal, and I only heard of it by word of mouth, but the room was full and he gave an excellent lecture in faultless English. We were all aware of the Czechs as our allies but his talk - the rights of small nations if I remember correctly -increased our respect for them.
In our final year we were expected to conduct a piece of research with as little reference to our supervisor as far as reasonably possible, and to present the results in a thesis. My subject was an aspect of Optical Activity arising from work by one of my predecessors, and again my supervisor was Dr. MacAlpine. I cannot remember any highlights (or lowlights) but I plodded away and duly produced my thesis. Re-reading it now, after some forty years of report writing, makes me cringe, but it did help me to get a degree so I presume it must have been typical.
The Alchemist's Club...
Throughout my course I had been an enthusiastic member and this year I became the Secretary, not an onerous task but one giving the opportunity of enlivening the Presidential Address. The President was normally a post graduate student, Bobby Preston in this case, and the subject was either a philosophical one or one related to his work. There was a long standing tradition of the lecture being pepped up by one or two "interventions", but not so much as to disrupt it. This year four students were involved, two prepared some nitrogen tri-iodide (quite popular around this period) which detonated on contact when dry, and this was spread in the wet state on a small area behind the lecture bench half an hour beforehand, another produced a slide from a photograph of three young ladies in third year showing what in those days was considered a somewhat excessive amount of leg and I slipped this amongst the president's slides, the fourth produced an alarm clock set to go off during the lecture and I locked it in a drawer of the bench and "lost" the key. All went as planned, caused considerable hilarity, but did not seriously interrupt the lecture. About par for the course!
By now the war seemed to be turning in our favour, enemy bombing attacks were minimal as far as Scotland was concerned and, although shortages of some items such as lab apparatus had become worse, the general atmosphere was less pessimistic than a year earlier. With this background we began a series of interviews with prospective employers. The salaries on offer ranged from £450 per year from Cefoil, a small company making camouflage netting impenetrable to infra-red cameras and other abstruse military items, to Colvilles (Ravenscraig Steelworks) at £195 per year. I was one of the three lucky ones to receive an offer from Cefoil but the appointment had to be approved by the Joint Recruiting Board. In recognition of this hurdle I had acquired certificates A and B during my time with the OTC which would enable me to proceed direct to an officers training unit, but the Board decided that I would make a better chemist than soldier. From subsequent experiences in "Dads Army" I reckon they were probably right! So after a low key graduation I left to become a research chemist.
Nowadays it seems customary for new graduates to be welcomed by the Top Management (whom they probably won't see again for twenty years). It was not so in 1942; the bright young chemist with a brand new honours degree had to be shown his proper place in the organisation. In my case this meant spending the first three weeks as assistant to a pipe-fitter. I learnt later the reason for the urgency in commissioning that particular plant and then it made sense, but the experience came in useful in several ways in later life.
14th Aug 2001