Brigitte Van Tiggelen
Société de Chimie Industrielle Fellow, 2010-2011
While a Société fellow in residence at CHF, I will start with the biography of a fascinating man-made substance: Prussian blue, also known as ferric ferrocyanide, or Fe7(CN)18. Accidentally discovered at the very beginning of the 18th century in the workshop of a color manufacturer who borrowed an ingredient from an alchemist, this synthetic pigment first used by painters puzzled chemists for centuries before they deciphered its structure. Meanwhile it was technically improved and moved from one technological use to another: from paintings to pharmacy to the early beginnings of photography and the blossoming of synthetic dyes. In the last century prussic acid was used in pesticides and, more tragically, in gas chambers during World War II. Writing the story of Prussian blue is thus a way to communicate some elements of the history of chemistry to the general public, especially laymen in chemistry, and convey a broad and contextualized understanding of how chemistry developed through its interaction with both nature and society.