For chemists of a certain age, the word “stacks” evokes twin sound and olfactory landscapes associated with walking through the narrow canyons of library shelves, flanked by multicolored volumes, to keep up with literature. For current reviews, you can browse the table of contents to see the latest news. But searching for older articles had a daunting learning curve involving several key gateways.
Indexes to Chemical Abstracts occupied one end of the library’s journal collection. You have selected the decennial indexes, searching by author, by molecular formula or by subject. These gave you a list of encrypted code numbers like 89:463186k, each of which referred you to a short summary buried in countless volumes further along the shelves. The summary now directed you to the original article, which was hidden somewhere deeper in the piles with their characteristic smell of books.
If on the other hand you had a specific organic molecule in mind, there was Beilstein, a monumental clue to almost every carbon-containing compound ever isolated. There were hundreds of these volumes, organized in mysterious but logical ways. I remember having to attend classes to learn how these systems worked. It was boring, but essential. I remember wondering who were the catalogers and abstract writers who spent their lives indexing chemistry for us?
Meet the Indexer
The most famous indexer was Friedrich Konrad Beilstein, a German of Russian origin. After graduating with high marks from school in St. Petersburg at the age of 14, his godfather paid him to attend university in Germany where he studied with Robert Bunsen in Heidelberg. He then moved to Munich where he worked with Justus von Liebig and Philipp von Jolly. For his doctorate, Beilstein moved again – to Göttingen, where he worked on the structure of the dye/indicator murexide with Liebig’s great friend Friedrich Wöhler.
Beilstein received his doctorate at the age of 19. After short stays in Paris and Breslau, he finally returned to Göttingen as Wöhler’s assistant. His research focused on aromatic compounds. But the lack of organization of the chemical literature bothers him. He began taking systematic notes on organic compounds, building up notebooks full of formulas and reactions, a process that would gradually turn into an obsession that some might find a bit boring.
Beilstein was anything but. He was an excellent pianist who held musical evenings at home. He loved to travel, was fluent in four languages and got by in two others. He was a lively dresser, a great storyteller, witty and quick-witted; his letters are filled with amusing and sometimes quite lively comments about his contemporaries. But he was also something of an enigma. He rarely revealed anything about his own life and feelings, answering questions by changing the subject or with misleading answers.
For all his travels, his dream was to return home. In 1866 he was appointed professor of chemistry at the Saint Petersburg Technological Institute, succeeding Dmitry Mendeleev who moved to teach on the inorganic side. Mendeleïev will publish his periodic system the following year.
Beilstein’s position came with stable and comfortable funding. He continued to work primarily on aromatic chemistry and developed his eponymous copper-based flame test for halocarbons. He was also editor-in-chief of Zeitschrift für Chemiewhere he fought for publishers to produce formulas and structural indices.
In all of this, Beilstein was in many ways deeply conservative and suspicious of the new structural theory. As the isomers of each putative chemical species multiplied, Beilstein’s answer was increasingly cautious. In a letter to his colleague Alexander Butlerov, he quoted a French phrase “Organic chemistry is the science of bodies that don’t exist” – organic chemistry is the study of things that don’t exist. Since knowledge of the unseen chemical world was inferred from prior inferred chemical knowledge, how was anyone to know that it was all real? “Do these billions of compounds really exist? Think of the countless variations of cetyl alcohol, of which we have yet to see the end. I just can’t believe God wanted to make life so difficult for chemists.
Meanwhile, his compound lists were growing. He wanted to write an organic chemistry textbook, but the job turned into something else. In 1880 he published his first handbook of organic compounds, one of the first compilations of chemoinformatics, which listed 15,000 compounds and immediately attracted attention – it was now possible for chemists to search for molecules by structure.
It was a poisoned gift. He immediately needed to produce a second volume. And then a third. Even on vacation, he would spend hours trying to organize the burgeoning literature into usable lists. Eventually, Beilstein, overwhelmed, accepted the German Chemical Society as his successor. After his death in 1906, the fourth edition was published, consisting of 504 volumes.
When I first started using Beilstein, volumes were extremely useful, but decades behind. Today, the whole company has gone digital and Beilstein, blandly renamed Reaxys, is at the heart of our cheminformatics research. Millions of structures can be explored without leaving your desk. For all the convenience, I miss both the walk to the library and that smell.