History of Chemistry and Chlorine Underwear

Photo taken from this site (illustrations from the Maxfield Parrish`s notebook).

Jean-Baptiste Dumas (1800-1884), a French chemist, announced in the 1830s his law of substitution. According to him, atoms of one element could be replaced in chemical compounds in some cases by atoms of other elements, e.g., hydrogen by chlorine in acetic acid, nevertheless, chemical properties of products would be similar to that of substrates.

His law was fiercely attacked by some of his contemporaries, because many scientists thought that electronegative elements, such as chlorine or oxygen, would not substitute electropositive hydrogen. They supposed that such compounds could not be stable, according to the conclusions drawn from electrochemical dualism – the theory proposed by Jöns Jacob Berzelius (1779-1848), a Swedish naturalist who acted almost as a chemical “dictator” during the first half ot the 19th century. Berzelius believed that molecules consist of positively and negatively charged fragments (atoms and groups of atoms) in a state of equillibrium.

Friedrich Wöhler (1800-1882), a German chemist, mocked the law of Dumas in one of the most famous scientific journals: Liebig’s Annalen der Chemie und Pharmacie (33, 308, 1840):

“I am eager to communicate to you one of the most striking facts of organic chemistry. […] I passed a stream of chlorine through a solution of manganese acetate […] I found that it [the final product] was formed of 24 atoms of chlorine and one of water. Thus there was complete substitution of all the elements of manganese acetate. The formula of the substance should be expressed as: Cl2Cl2 + Cl8Cl6Cl6 + aq. For all I know, in the decolorizing action of chlorine, hydrogen is replaced by chlorine, and the cloth, which is now being bleached in England, preserves its type according to the substitution laws (*).

S. C. H. Windler [swindler]

(*) I have just learned that there is already in the London shops a cloth of chlorine thread, which is very much sought after and preferred above all others for night caps, underwear, etc.”



5 thoughts on “History of Chemistry and Chlorine Underwear

  1. Uncle Fester from “The Addams Family” said he used sulphuric acid as an aftershave, explaining that he liked something stronger 😀

    Sulphuric acid is a true “chemical beast”, one of the most corrosive substances that exist. When I broke a little bottle of concentrated H2SO4 (20 ml), and tried to remove it from the floor, the paper towels I used turned almost instantly black and there was even some smoke.

    Liked by 1 person

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