Choose Your Survival Kit for the Zombie Apocalypse

Zombies evolve over time, but natural selection has nothing to do with it. In the original Haitian version of zombification, someone is knocked out with drugs, reanimated, and then mind controlled by a voodoo witch doctor who has made his victim believe he was dead. In George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, people rise from their graves after being exposed to radiation and slowly shuffle around, searching for brains to consume. In more recent interpretations, such as 28 Days Later, a viral pandemic infects living people, turning them into fast–moving, flesh-eating psychopaths. Even more recently, such as in the video game The Last of Us, humans are zombified by a parasitic fungus.

These scenarios require varying levels of preparedness and different survival strategies. Could you wait until all the zombies starved to death or until microbes completely decomposed their rotting corpses? Would it be possible to find a cure or vaccine? Is it safe to travel on foot, or would you be run down by packs of fast zombies? No matter the situation, one thing is certain: social infrastructure will disintegrate and zombies will reduce humanity to a fraction of its former numbers.

Of course, a traditional zombie apocalypse will never  happen. But if it did (or if we got hit by another kind of apocalyptic event) would you be prepared?  Here at CHF we think science has a role to play in the real world and in the post apocalyptic world. In this post, we pose three questions that may influence your survival: What chemist from the history of science would you take with you into this brave new world? What chemical or medicine would you bring? And what tool from CHF would you use? You have five options in each category, so choose wisely. Your life may depend upon it. Tweet your votes to hashtag #HistChem and the most popular tactics will be featured in an upcoming live interview with zombie experts. 

Watch the live show at The webcast starts at 6 p.m. EST on August 7. See you then!


The Chemists:

Eugene Houdry

Courtesy of Sunoco, Inc.

Houdry invented a process called “catalytic cracking” that more completely and efficiently converts crude petroleum into gasoline and other types of fuel. Once society has collapsed, the finite amount of refined petroleum will be quickly used up by people escaping in cars and planes. But there will be plenty of crude oil lying around that no one will know how to use. Houdry could convert that oil into fuel and give you an edge in  transportation and, when winter hits, warmth. Houdry also served in World War I in a French tank corps, giving him some battle experience that might come in handy against the hordes of undead.

Louis Pasteur

CHF Collections.

The man has a history in making vaccines, which could be useful once the cause of the zombie apocalypse is identified. Pasteur was also one of the first scientists to champion germ theory, which postulates that diseases are caused by microorganisms. And, since the term pasteurization is named after him for good reason, you wouldn’t have to worry about food spoiling and poisoning you. Pasteur might be just the man to prevent death by sickness. Unfortunately, Pasteur’s left side was paralyzed by a stroke and even a slow zombie might be able to outrun him. On the other hand, he discovered that yeast is the natural force behind fermenting sugar into alcohol, so he might turn out to be a good beer and wine maker. Cheers!

Cecile Hoover Edwards

Courtesy of Iowa State University Library/Special Collections Department.

Probably the least conventional choice on this list, Edwards developed low-cost, high-protein diets for poor African Americans in the 1970s and 1980s. In a post apocalyptic world, food will be scarce and meat will be hard to come by, unless you know how to hunt. Edwards’s diet plan is based mostly on cheap vegetables that could be easily grown in most parts of the country, such as beans and peas. She was an expert in the nutrition requirements of the human body and psychology, and would help keep you healthy enough to fight zombies and sane enough to survive the apocalypse.

Alessandro Volta

Miniature batteries made their first appearance during World War II. Courtesy of Eric S. Hintz.

The Italian  invented the first electrochemical cell around 1800. The cell was essentially a battery made up of zinc and copper discs separated by brine-soaked cloth, all easy components to find even after the collapse of civilization. Once the current supply of batteries is gone, no more modern conveniences—no flashlights to check out dark spaces where zombies might be hiding, no radios for communicating with other survivors. With Volta along you’d have an endless supply of batteries, along with a sideline in shocking zombies.

Charles Martin Hall

Aluminum chair. Courtesy of Marc Newson.

To protect yourself from zombies, you will need to reinforce your shelter. And if the zombie menace is ever defeated, society will need strong, flexible materials to rebuild. Basically, if you’re a homebody who wants a secure place to retreat to, then Hall is your man. In 1886 he invented a method of cheaply extracting pure aluminum from ore by running an electric current through a mixture of alumina and cryolite. (This is only useful if you’ve already solved the electricity problem, see Volta above).  Aluminum is used in everything from cars, to buildings, to paint and is produced in greater quantity  than nearly any other metal. It is hard to imagine society being quickly rebuilt without aluminum. Plus, aluminum makes for great lightweight zombie bashing weapons like baseball bats.


The Chemicals:


Alexander Fleming. Courtesy of Bristol-Myers Squibb Corporation.

Penicillin is an antibacterial drug derived from a fungus. It fights a wide range of diseases, including staph infections, which cause food poisoning and meningitis, and strep throat. Penicillin kills bacteria by attacking their cell walls, causing them to rupture. In a world without hospitals or even doctors penicillin will help you survive old-fashioned bacterial assaults as you battle zombies and struggle through the apocalypse. One problem: some bacteria have evolved to resist penicillin, so it won’t be as effective as it was when it was first used. But who knows? It might even do something against whatever is zombifying humans (as long as it’s bacterial in nature and not viral).


Iodine purifies water. After the apocalypse, clean drinking water will be difficult to come by (think of all the rotting corpses littering the area). Adding a tiny amount of iodine to fresh water will kill most bacteria and microorganisms, making it safe enough to drink. Other benefits of consuming small amounts of iodine include preventing goiter, helping the thyroid function properly, and treating thyroid cancer (if you can manufacture iodine-131).


Schoolchildren give saliva samples as part of an early water fluoridation project. Courtesy of National Library of Medicine.

This one’s for the kids. If you want to survive by eating whatever you can scavenge, you’re going to need strong teeth. Most Americans take fluoride for granted; tiny amounts are automatically put into many public water supplies, as well as toothpaste and some brands of salt. But after all of those sources of fluoride disappear, and without access to dentists, armoring your kids’ teeth and preventing cavities will be extremely valuable (fluoride has no effect on adult teeth).

Hey kids, if you do get turned into a zombie, your teeth will be powerful enough to devour even the toughest of brains!


Courtesy of National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

Do daily multivitamin pills make the average person healthier? The evidence is inconclusive. However, during the zombie apocalypse we cannot expect the wide variety of food we now take for granted. Combined with food scarcity, this may lead to severe vitamin deficiencies that could cause rickets, scurvy, or pellagra. Scurvy results from a deficiency in vitamin C and causes collagen to form improperly, inducing bleeding gums and a painful death. Pellagra can be caused by a lack of niacin and results in dementia, diarrhea, and death, among other unpleasant symptoms. Depending on your perspective, these diseases might be even scarier than zombies.

Refined Petroleum

CHF Collections.

If you picked Eugene Houdry as your chemist, refined petroleum (propane, butane, kerosene, gasoline, etc.) might be a redundant choice. For everyone else, it can power cars, fuel fires for warmth and cooking, and toast zombie hordes. Although it’s the only option on the list that does not contribute to personal health, petroleum allows you to take advantage of many modern technologies that other survivors won’t have access to.


The Tools:

Chemistry Set

CHF Collections.

Although they were designed as child’s play, older chemistry sets have a variety of useful chemicals and tools, including sulfuric acid and microscopes. More recent chemistry sets have removed the toxic chemicals and complexity that inspired so many people to devote their lives to science. (CHF has a major collection of old chemistry sets—including at least one with uranium—but in the event of the apocalypse we won’t be loaning out any of them.) Even if you don’t know how to use the contents, chances are the famous chemist you picked will.

Leyden Jars

CHF Collections/Gregory Tobias.

A Leyden jar stores electric charge and releases all of its energy in a single burst. The earliest 18th-century versions were made from glass jars filled with water and with a wire sticking out. In more recent times this simple technology was miniaturized, applied to electronics, and called a capacitor. Unlike modern batteries, which are chemical in nature, Leyden jar electricity is produced purely by a static electric field. During the apocalypse, use it to zap a zombie and then run away really quickly. Don’t forget to recharge or the zombies will get you..


CHF Collections/Gregory Tobias.

A Bakelizer is used to manufacture Bakelite, a synthetic material that can be made into almost any shape. Invented by Leo Baekeland in 1907, Bakelite is a phenol/formaldehyde resin. It can be used to form shoes, utensils, or zombie-bashing weapons. Its high plasticity means you can adapt it to nearly any situation, and it will be useful to have when rebuilding society after most other consumer goods have been scavenged or destroyed. One caveat: these things are really heavy.

Slide Rule

CHF Collections/Gregory Tobias.

It’s hard to imagine, but before computers people had to rely on slide rules (or their brains) to do complex math. This will come in handy in a world without electricity (or even with one, once your electronic calculator dies), where you will be dividing up rations and calculating your odds of survival. Chemistry often requires calculation, so having this device will increase the effectiveness of your chosen chemist.

Transistor Radio

CHF Collections/Gregory Tobias.

It goes without saying that communication will be invaluable during the zombie apocalypse. With a transistor radio you’ll have a better chance of finding other survivors or of learning the location of military strongholds. Face it, life without Internet or telephone service will be hard (though probably not as hard as a life with zombies). Your radio’s battery won’t last forever, so it is best used with another choice that can provide electricity.


Time to make your three choices: one chemist, one chemical, and one tool. Remember to tweet your votes using the hashtag #HistChem and tune in to our live webcast to learn the most popular survival strategy.


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