I was recently reflecting on my career as a scientist, and realised that this year is the 50th anniversary of my first scientific paper.1

In 1947 I was a “scientific civil servant” in London; I worked in a part of the Ministry of Food devoted to protecting our food stocks from insect pests. The organochlorine insecticides had recently become prominent, following the miracle-seeming prevention of post-war epidemics of insect-borne diseases by the use of DDT. My job was to find ways of measuring small amounts of these substances in food, on surfaces, etc.

The substance of particular interest to me was not DDT, but another organochlorine insecticide nowadays execrated under the name “lindane”, which then was known by other names. The molecule of this substance contains six atoms each of carbon, hydrogen and chlorine, ie its chemical formula is C6H6Cl6. In the jargon of the laboratory it was known as 666. I do not remember that we saw anything unusual in this. We probably knew something of the Book of Revelation, but in a quite separate mental compartment from the chemical one. In those optimistic post-war years we confidently looked forward to the withering away of superstition. I would have been astounded had I been told that in fifty years time, a Government appointed committee would have carefully avoided the number 666 in drawing up a list.2

1) BH Howard, [1947] The Analysts, vol 72, pp 427 – 432

2) Waitangi Tribunal’s numbered list of claims [see Sunday Star-Times, 14 September 1997, 17]

Recommended Posts