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Chemistry Students Investigate
Civil War-Era Medicine

By Burton Bollag

From the Chronicle of Higher Education, October 21, 2005

Civil War-era medicine could cure you - or kill you. That's what Susan Sutheimer's first-year General Chemistry II class found out when it studied the contents of a doctor's bag that was used around that time in Poultney, Vt., where the small college is located.

This second-semester introductory class, like many classes at Green Mountain College, is a service-learning course, which means that some kind of community service is incorporated into the syllabus.

The doctor's bag, a typical black-leather case, belongs to a local museum maintained by the Poultney Historical Society. An original shiny, metal label indicates that it was the property of one Dr. Alanzo E. Horton, who lived from 1835 to 1925. When Ms. Sutheimer, an associate professor of chemistry, first saw it, she was intrigued. Inside were 130 small corked glass vials, each labeled as to the medicinal plant or chemical it contained. The museum agreed to let the class study the bag last spring.

"The students and myself were pretty amazed at the number of compounds which are either toxic or things you don't want to pass out," like compounds of arsenic, mercury, and lead, as well as morphine and codeine, she says.

Students analyzed the compounds to determine their modern names, uses, and toxicities. In the mid-19th century, the substances were used to treat up to a dozen different ailments each.

There was musk, used to treat fainting, dizziness, exhaustion, vertigo, and neurosis; and potassium sulfate, used to treat asthma, dandruff, dyspepsia, eczema, gonorrhea, itch, diseased nails, rash from stinging nettle, psoriasis, rheumatism, vertigo, and whooping cough. The class put together a book with detailed information on 30 of the substances and created an exhibit on Civil War medicine, including amputation saws, scalpels, and a wooden leg prosthesis. Both the book and exhibit are being displayed by the museum. Future classes will continue studying the remedies and expanding the exhibit.

Lindsay A. Swinger, a junior in environmental studies, says it was fascinating to have a window onto the medicine practiced 150 years ago. She feels that the students' work really enhanced the museum's exhibit. "We took a great deal from it," she says, "and I think the town did, too."

Chemistry classThe Chemistry Lab and Alternative Sources of Energy

Making biodiesel from vegetable oil, making hydrogen gas, and distilling wine would not seem to have much in common until you start thinking about looking for sources of fuels for the future.

Working with undergraduate Garrison Riegel, a new experiment on making biodiesel is being tested in the General Chemistry II laboratory. Students start with a bottle of vegetable oil, such as soy or corn oil, and end up with a bottle of biodiesel. But how biodiesel is different from vegetable oil chemically is more complex.

The process is known as transesterification: making one ester from another. Vegetable oil, a large molecule, is a glycerol ester. To work in a diesel engine, the material needs to be made to be much "thinner". The biodiesel methyl ester is a much smaller and so much less viscous.

During the same experiment, the students make hydrogen gas from an acid solution using an oxidation-reduction process. In this process, acid is reduced to hydrogen gas at the same time copper metal is oxidized to copper(II) ion. Hydrogen gas is the basis for hydrogen fuel cells, a possible energy source of the future, but a lot of energy is needed to make it from acid and water.

Just like making hydrogen gas, distilling ethanol (another laboratory experiment in Chemistry II) to use in place of gasoline, also uses a lot of energy.

Students will be able to see alternative energy in action when they travel in April to a local Vermont farm that uses CowPower, methane gas made from manure, to provide for some of their own energy needs.

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