book-reviews

Excuse Me Sir, Would You Like to Buy a Kilo of Isopropyl Bromide?

by Max Gergel

Rating: ★★★★

Excuse Me Sir is a pretty crazy autobiography, to suit a pretty crazy life. Max Gergel was a chemist in 'the old days' of chemistry, back when any old fools with a shed and some resources could set up and start making horrible smells and potentially set things on fire. Much of the book centres around the times where Gergel was doing just that, working with one or two other people to cook up dangerous mixtures in sub-par conditions and dump waste straight into the river.

Much of the actual chemistry in the book goes far over my head, but to a large degree that doesn't matter -- when Gergel describes something in more detail, he usually expounds on what it's for and why it's difficult, making the material accessible for people who (like me) don't have a clue what isopropyl bromide even is. He also gives you a sense of how dangerous some of the things he did were, to the point where you realise that it's a medical miracle he survived and is in fact still alive, given how many young men he describes dropping around him and the fact that he was in no way particularly careful, and indeed repeatedly suffered from some kind of reaction:

Ten years later I had a chance to meet Dr. Hoffmann himself and he marveled that I had made his compound and survived. He told me that in Germany in Bockemuller's lab everyone knew of the terrible toxicity of fluoroethanol which metabolized in the body to fluoroacetic acid and was a Krebs Cycle blocking agent. I told him that in our laboratory we had taken no precautions but somehow I had survived. For those who are curious, or wish to make fluoroethanol and offer it to us at Columbia Organics the compound has a musky, rather tart odor. By the time you have established this you have probably had a fatal exposure.

That's not a singular example, the book is full of such casual mentions of Gergel being exposed to some deadly toxin and suffering in manners ranging from headaches to full-blown visual and auditory hallucinations. One is tempted to suggest that it's the combination of several lethal doses of different substances that is keeping him alive -- the one cancelling out the others in some Mr. Burns-style balance of immortality.

Gergel also gives you a good sense of his time outside of chemistry, including the draft-dodging involved in being an academic during the war years and his personal relationships, along with the more general 'soft skills' he developed as an entrepreneur trying to flog chemicals and chemical products across America. You get a sense of the book as a confessional for all the highly dodgy things Gergel took part in. Definitely a stylish account of a life.