Phenol is a simple aromatic molecule made up of a benzene ring attached to an OH group. Though, there are possibly hundreds of thousands of different types of phenols; however, each one does contain the basic benzene ring and OH group structure. Some are man-made while some are naturally occurring, although there are many different uses for different phenols. For example, trichlorophenol and hexylresorcinols, which are man-made, have antibacterial properties and are used in today‘s antiseptics, while naturally occurring vanillin is a phenol that has become the active ingredient in one of the world’s most popular flavoring compound, vanilla. Another active ingredient, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), is the phenol found in Cannabis sativa, the Indian hemp plant, or, marijuana plant. THC in marijuana has been used to help patients suffering pain and nausea from cancer, AIDS, an other illnesses.

Before the medical discovery of the phenol molecule, people’s outlook on hospitals were very different. Though they knew they needed a doctor, hospitals were such infectious and germ-infested places, going to one with an open wound being operated on in one almost always guaranteed  a dangerous and potentially life-threatening bacterial infection. “Hospital disease” as these infections like gangrene and sepsis were referred to, killed at lease 40% of amputee patients in hospitals. If it was an army hospital the number of deaths rose to nearly 70% for amputees. Joseph Lister, after reading Louis Pasteur’s paper on germs, decided he could maybe change what most had decided was the inevitable. He began by using  the product carbolic acid which comes from coal tar. He eventually was able to retrieve from the carbolic acid its main ingredient phenol which he made a paste from and a less concentrated solution in water that he cleaned surgical equipment with, washed patient’s skin and the surgeon’s hands with, and also had it continuously spraying  onto the incision during surgery. Eventually he created a machine that would spray a mist of the carbolic acid solution into the air throughout the length of the surgery.  The results of his working with phenol soon spread throughout the world, changing the face of  hospitals forever.

Though as time went on phenol was found to be toxic and had harmful effects on some surgeons who were so greatly exposed to the substance, this discovery by Joseph Lister has been a very effective game changer to all hospitals. Before he introduced his carbolic acid and eventual phenol to kill the bacteria, people must have been overcome with very real fear. Not necessarily the fear of an accident and an injury, but of the hospital where today people tend to feel safe and generally taken care of. Now at least people know that a care facility’s very best, will most likely keep you breathing. In the late 1800s, before phenol that could block out infection and keep it away people knew that “hospital disease” was just as likely to kill a person as was a terrible injury or other mishap resulting in a trip to the emergency room.

In Napoleon’s Buttons at the end of the chapter the author says that “His [Joseph Lister] antiseptic phenol was ultimately derived from lignin.”. At first glance the appears to be a large jump from carbolic acid to lignin in plants, but further study of the text helps to prove the point that phenol and vanilla are indeed connected. The lignin from wood pulp that is used to create synthetic vanilla is found in coal that forms over time under high pressures and moderate temperatures. From the burning of this coal to provide fuel for homes and industries and black liquid called coal tar forms. This is the tar from which Joseph Lister originally brought forth carbolic acid, thus connecting phenol and lignin. Although saying that phenol is derived from lignin does seem stretched because the coal that burns to form the coal tar can form from other decomposing vegetation and plant parts which would also result in the coal without lignin.

All arguments aside, Phenol was a pivotal discovery in history that without a doubt opened doors to endless possibilities for many different industries.


The Pill

All compounds that are classified as steroids have the same basic molecular pattern, a series of four rings fused in the same way. Three of the rings have six carbon atoms each while the fourth only has five. These rings are referred to as the A,B,C,D rings. Cholesterol is the most widespread of all animal steroids and is responsible for being the precursor molecule for all our other steroids, including sex hormones.

The sex hormone progesterone is the main pregnancy hormone and is very similar to the male sex hormone when compared to the female sex hormone, estrogen. Progesterone tells the lining of the uterus to prepare for the implantation of a fertilized egg, and it is because of this hormone that women do not get pregnant again while pregnant. This is what brought about the idea of using it as a contraceptive. The progesterone molecule, however, is not as effective taken orally as it is injected. Also, natural steroids must be extracted from animals in very small quantities.The amount necessary to get the job done is not practical, thus, progesterone’s synthetic form was born.

This was first done by Russell Marker, whose work was very important in creating the pill, though his initial intentions were not to create synthetic progesterone. He achieved this by taking spogenin molecules from the sarsparilla vine from which he removed a side grouping circle. This with a few added steps gave pure synthetic progesterone. This molecule was then again created, though this time on purpose, by Carl Dejerassi. Although he did not intend on creating a contraceptive, the artificial compound progestin was made and given the name norethindrome. Its most important aspects being it was eight times more powerful than progesterone and could be taken orally.

Though the pill was now readily available, places like Massachusetts had laws that said the selling, prescribing, providing the contraceptives, or even giving out information on birth control was a felony. Women like Margaret Sanger and Katherine McCormick made the decision that they wanted to be in control of their own bodies and fertility and helped to make this possible for other women who had the same wants. Women all over have gained more education and have entered the workforce due to the drop in birth rate caused by the acceptance and increasing availability of birth control over the years.

Because of the discoveries made by these chemists and outspoken women, I believe, we live in a much different world than the one could have lived in. Women are far more independent rather than being housewives and doomed to a life with a lack of purpose. They are the heads of entire countries, are surgeons, become astronauts, can speak openly about their opinions, and most importantly have options.

I do think that the authors make a valid argument. They state that this was the start of a women’s revolution and claim that from “the pill” has spiraled an immense and varying population. This is quite different from the one all-male workforce and the innumerable amount of less-educated stay-at-home mothers. The examples the two give where a chemist was in search of one thing yet somehow stumbled upon another all have proven chemical sense and are all backed by the events that follow. It talks about the fact that before contraceptives were available ,or even legal, some women had more children than could be cared for. This scientific discovery is a life changing one that without it we would now find ourselves still stuck in what is now considered a very old way of life, and I would find myself with far fewer possible opportunities and alternatives.