Death in the Laboratory by Isaac Asimov

I’m a self confessed moron in chemistry, but this essay by Asimov, that talks about chemists who died early or later due their obstinate love for the science and the elements, keeps me grinning from ear to ear. And I quote some:

“While most chemists are very careful about tasting, by the way, much more careful than poor Scheele* ever was, this cannot be said about smelling, even today. Chemists may not deliberately go about sniffing at things, but the air in laboratories is usually loaded with gases and vapors and chemists often take a kind of perverse pleasure in tolerating this, and in reacting with a kind of superior professional amusement at the nonchemists who make alarmed faces and say ‘phew’.

This may account for the alleged shortened life expectancy of chemists generally. I am not speaking of this shortened life expectancy as an established fact, please note, since I don’t know that it is. I say “alleged.” Still, there was a letter recently in a chemical journal by someone who had been following obituaries and who claimed that chemists died at a considerably younger age, on the average, than did scientists who were not chemists. This could be so.

There were also speculations some years back that a number of chemists show mental aberrations in later years through the insidious long-term effects of mercury poisoning. This came about through the constant presence of mercury vapor in the laboratory, vapor that ascended from disregarded mercury droplets in cracks and corners.”

*Carl Wilhelm Scheele a Swedish Chemist has a habit of smelling and tasting all the chemicals he obtained to include fluoric acid, hydrogen sulfide and hydrogen cyanide. Surprisingly he did not die immediately while the stuffs are in his mouth but he died at an early of forty three after some years of invalidship.


Death in the Laboratory, Chapter 1: Every Real Problem Can and Will be Solved, Ernst Mach, ed in Edward Blair Bolles, ed Galileo’s Commandment: An Anthology of Great Science Writing (New York: W.H. Freeman, 1997).

Originally publish in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (1965).

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