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The 13th Element: The Sordid Tale of Murder, Fire, and Phosphorus

The 13th Element: The Sordid Tale of Murder, Fire, and Phosphorus 



  • John Emsley  


  • Hardcover: 327 pages
  • Publisher: John Wiley & Sons (August 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0471394556
  • ISBN-13: 978-0471394556
  • Product Dimensions: 8.1 x 5.6 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds


Book Description 

Tells the surprising history of phosphorus, an element which was discovered by alchemists, prescribed by apothecaries, exploited by industrialists and abused by 20th-century combatants. Over the years, phosphorus has been called a poison, a miracle elixir, and even the answer to the mystery of spontaneous human combustion! Award-winning author John Emsley traces the shocking history of the thirteenth element.

Back Cover Copy

This is popular science at its best, a great subject, unfolded with the skill of the storyteller; at once a mine of information and a thoroughly good read."
–The Sunday Times (London)

"This well-written book is an examination of the very character of all chemicals."
–The Sunday Telegraph (London)

Discovered by alchemists, prescribed by apothecaries, exploited by nineteenth-century industrialists, and abused by twentieth-century combatants, phosphorus is one of nature’s deadliest–and most fascinating–creations. Now award-winning author John Emsley combines his gift for storytelling with his scientific expertise to present an enthralling account of this eerily luminescent element. From murders-by-phosphorus where the bodies glowed green, to the match factory strike that helped end child labor in England, to the irony of the World War II firebombing of Hamburg, to even deadlier compounds derived from phosphorus today, The 13th Element weaves together a rich tableau of brilliant and oddball characters, social upheavals, and curious, bizarre, and horrific events that comprise the surprising 300-year history of nature’s most nefarious element. –This text refers to the Paperback edition.

About the Author

JOHN EMSLEY is Science Writer in Residence at both Cambridge University and Imperial College of London University. He has won the prestigious Rhone-Poulenc Prize for best science book of the year, was an editor of New Scientist magazine, and wrote a science column for the Independent newspaper. –This text refers to the Paperback edition.  



A melancholy history of a fascinating element, March 6, 2001

This was first published in Great Britain with the title The Shocking History of Phosphorus. Even with such a provocative title one might wonder how a book devoted to a single chemical element could find commercial success. The fact that the book has now been published in the United States and Canada suggests that author John Emsley knows what he is doing. He reduces the dry chemistry to a minimum and accentuates the sordid details, making this an interesting read.

Emsley begins with alchemy in the seventeenth century and how phosphorus was first manufactured from copious pots of urine, and how the small amounts obtained were used in demonstrations before royalty. By the by we gain some historical insight into the lives of the European alchemists and their methods. Emsley then delves into the medical use of phosphorus, proscribed for ailments as diverse as TB and melancholia, for which it worthless. Indeed it was worthless for all prescriptions. (Maybe this is how homoepathy began: a vanishingly dilute prescription of phosphorus would be an improvement on the standard dosage!) Phosphorus was even seen as an aphrodisiac.

The production of phosphorus really took off in the early nineteenth century with invention of the phosphorus match, aptly named "the lucifer." I thought this was the most interesting part of the book, bringing to mind a world before we had matches and fires had to kept going or started with flint and tender, or perhaps borrowed from your neighbor. Emsley writes that by the end of the nineteenth century "three trillion phosphorus matches were being struck every year" (p. 65). He emphasizes the word "trillion." Next Emsley tells the sad, ugly tale of how the matches were manufactured by children and women sixty hours a week in sweat shop conditions at subsistence wages (if that), and how many of the workers contacted phossy jaw, a disease caused by phosphorus that rots the teeth and jaw and can lead to deformity or death. Then comes the story of Annie Besant and the Salvation Army whose efforts greatly improved the conditions of the workers.

Ah, but the worst is to come. As World War I approached we clever people discovered that poisoned gas and incendiary bombs could be made from phosphorus, and so a new horror was ushered in. Finally though, in the latter chapters we see how phosphorus is used in fertilizers and dishwashing detergents. Emsley discusses some of the problems associated with their use. He also goes into how and why our bodies need phosphorus and its role in nutrition. The "phosporus cycle" is discussed and the rather bizarre phenomenon of "spontaneous human combustion" is looked into.

Bottom line: this is eye-opening read about an element that has had a major impact on human history for both good and evil, a history that is continuing. (Incidentally, phosphorus was the thirteenth element discovered, element fifteen of the periodic table, thus the somewhat misleading title.)