The medical profession and a broken heart

In his highly entertaining (if chemically and scientifically esoteric) book “Excuse Me Sir, Would You Like to Buy a Kilo of Isopropyl Bromide?“, chemical engineer and industrial chemist Max Gergel starts out by describing his university studies, and his (frequently unsuccessful) romantic endeavors, during World War II.  In one incident, he describes the breakup of a relationship he’d taken far more seriously than the lady concerned.  So upset was he, both physically and mentally, that he sought a doctor’s advice.

Dr. Silver was an unusual man. He did not prescribe medicine; he gave shots. These were ordered from outside the city. They were expensive. He had cured Albert Ragsdale’s Angioneurotic Edema—with shots; he had treated my mother’s hives—with shots. One of Kahn’s carpenters stepped off a building and fell through a maze of framing breaking an arm and a leg—he got shots.

I expected shots. No, we sat in his office and he asked me intimate details of my sex life and habits, then walked over to my mother and told her that I had a broken heart. She asked whether he would treat this with shots, but he assured her he had a remedy.

Going to a side shelf he removed a mortar and pestle. In the mortar he put iron sulfate, quinine and Karo syrup. He stirred and ground this mixture vigorously. The product was a thick yellow liquid. He poured this into a bottle, spooned out a generous portion. He then commanded me to think about J., close my eyes and swallow the mess. I did. It was awful, hard to get down, almost impossible to retain. The effect on the epithelial lining of my stomach was disaster. I coughed and burped and struggled for air.

“Good” said Silver. “Think of her again, and that long night you waited for her outside Steward’s Hall, and drink another spoonful.”

I took the nostrum everywhere I went. Let even the smallest memory of better days—when we were sweethearts—beset me and I would take a swig—and then suffer. After a while the merest thought of J. brought convulsions—without the medicine.

Even as I write this, thirty years later, I feel a twinge. Dr. Silver was a student of Pavlov.

I’d call that a classic example of aversion therapy, all right – as well as a “kill or cure” approach by the doctor!

Max Gergel’s book is entertaining, albeit hard to understand in parts for those who don’t have a background in chemistry (which would include me).  Derek Corante featured another excerpt from them back in 2015.  He also linked to a free download of the book (in Adobe Acrobat [.PDF] format), if you’re interested.  It’s long out of print, and used copies are expensive and hard to find.



  1. So, on your recommendation, I spent last evening, laughing and tearing up over the first half of this book. It is a riot. The loss of his friends in WW2 were poignant.

  2. If you're into that sort of thing (weird chemistry, not coming of age in WWII), I suggest Things I Won't Work With.

    For example, what if you take Hydrogen Peroxide and stuff in another Oxygen atom?
    a recent paper in JACS that describes a new route to “dihydrogen trioxide”, which I suppose is a more systematic name than “hydrogen perperoxide”, my own choice. Colloquially, I would imagine that the compound is known as “Oh, @#&!”, substituted with the most heartfelt word available when you realize that you’ve actually made the stuff.

    Needless to say, no one has ever been so foolhardy as to try to purify it to any sort of high concentration. I’m not sure how you’d do that, but I’m very sure that it’s a bad, bad, idea. This stuff is going to be much jumpier than plain old hydrogen peroxide (that oxygen in the middle of the molecule probably doesn’t know what to do with itself), and I don’t know how far you could get before everything goes through the ceiling.

    or explosives research:
    Hexanitrohexaazaisowurtzitane, or CL-20, was developed as a highly energetic, compact, and efficient explosive. What makes it unusual is not that it blows up – go find me a small hexa-N-nitro compound that doesn’t – but that it doesn’t actually blow up immediately, early, and often. No, making things that go off when someone down the hall curses at the coffee machine, that’s no problem. Making something like this that can actually be handled and stored is a real accomplishment.

    Not that it’s what you’d call a perfect compound in that regard – despite a lot of effort, it’s still not quite ready to be hauled around in trucks. There’s a recent report of a method to make a more stable form of it, by mixing it with TNT. Yes, this is an example of something that becomes less explosive as a one-to-one cocrystal with TNT. Although, as the authors point out, if you heat those crystals up the two components separate out, and you’re left with crystals of pure CL-20 soaking in liquid TNT, a situation that will heighten your awareness of the fleeting nature of life.

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