35. Bromine: Come At Me

Don’t get too excited, because bromine is an element that brings the hammer down on both extreme emotions and extreme actions.

Featured above: “The Auto Bandits,”1 published in Le Petit Journal in April, 1912.

Show Notes

It’s a pleasure to be back in the podcasting booth after taking a little break. I really missed creating the show in the short time I was away! Let’s get to it.

What A Goof! Bromine’s breakout role in recent years has been in the title card for prestige television drama Breaking Bad:

This doesn’t really relate to anything else in the episode, but I found it in the course of research and thought it was amusing.

The symbols for bromine and barium are accompanied by various data about the elements, but you can tell this was put together by someone without extensive knowledge of chemistry, because they labeled barium’s electron configuration as being identical to bromine’s. D’oh!

P.U.: It’s worth noting that bromine’s name comes from the Greek “bromos,” meaning a terrible smell. Even when it’s not part of tear gas, it’s an unpleasant element to inhale.

For Hair Of The Dog: Bromo-Seltzer might be off the shelves, but canine clientele can still receive a prescription for potassium bromide. It’s still an effective drug to treat epilepsy in dogs, especially in cases where phenobarbital cannot be used.

Real Art: Apparently the city of Baltimore found the Bromo-Seltzer tower more than a little tacky in its original state. The glowing blue bottle of medicine no longer adorns the top of the tower, and it’s been renovated into a space for community artists. It appears that they’ve even replaced the BROMOSELTZER on the clock faces with regular old Roman numerals, which frankly I find rather disappointing.

Bonus Bonnot: A few more throwaway facts about the Bonnot Gang.

The automobile they used as the world’s first getaway car could not have been dripping with more meaning, even beyond being a limousine driven for kings and presidents. Parry explains in his book, The Bonnot Gang:

The name ‘Delaunay-Belleville’ had further connotations: Delaunay was the name of the assassin of the second-in-command of the Surete (the equivalent of Scotland Yard) in 1909, while Belleville was the name of the renowned working class suburb in Paris’s East End. Joined together, the two names now signified one of the most prestigious of all capitalist commodities. The theft alone of such a car was, for the illegalists, a radically-conscious gesture.”

And Le Petit Journal, which published the image at the top of this post in 1912, ran this other illustration the following month, depicting the moment that the Director of Police executed Jules Bonnot. (“La fin du bandit.”)

Bonnot is depicted, somewhat pathetically, as wrapped up in a mattress because that is precisely what he did to shield himself from the dynamite explosions set off by the authorities.

It Runs In The Family: Haber the Younger appears to have been an impressively obtuse man, aware enough of his unique position as to write a personal introduction to his book on chemical warfare, but writing on the first page of that introduction, “It seemed to me truly astonishing that after half a century, chemical warfare could still generate so much emotion. What were the facts, and was all the fuss really justified?”

Paracelsus Overdose: It took tremendous willpower not to mention “the dose makes the poison” when discussing brominated vegetable oil, because at this point, I trust I’ve hammered that point home well enough. Don’t worry though, I’m sure I won’t be able to help myself from mentioning him the next time this comes up.

Episode Script

For every scientist who first discovered a new chemical element, it seems there’s at least one other who could have beaten them to the punch, if only they had been a little more careful in their observation — like how Friedrich Wohler was the first person to get his hands on elemental vanadium, but he let the discovery slip through his fingers, so Nils Sefstrom got the credit instead.

Surely anyone would kick themselves for that kind of oversight, but Justus von Liebig was especially determined to learn from his mistake. In 1825, while analyzing a sample of mineral water from the town of Bad Kreuznach, he successfully isolated elemental bromine.

But he didn’t realize it. Instead, he thought he uncovered a compound of chlorine and iodine, and set the sample aside for further study on a rainy day. It’s an understandable mistake to make — chlorine is directly above bromine in Group 17, iodine is directly below, and sure enough, iodine monochloride is a chemical compound that looks and acts very similarly to elemental bromine.

One year later, a French chemist named Antoine Balard announced that he had discovered a new “simple body,” a fuming, orange-brown liquid with a putrid stench — and only then did von Liebig realize the error he had made.2

With a heavy heart, he returned to the bottle that contained what he now realized was element 35, and he enshrined it in his “Cupboard of Mistakes,” serving as a lasting reminder to exercise due diligence.3

His chemistry career continued for another half-century after that incident, and by the end of his life, he had upended the way chemistry was taught, revolutionized food science, and was one of the most honored scientists of the 19th century — so it would seem he learned his lesson.

You’re listening to The Episodic Table Of Elements, and I’m T. R. Appleton. Each episode, we take a look at the fascinating true stories behind one element on the periodic table.

Today, we’re catching a whiff of bromine.

Group 17 elements, the halogens, are some of the most reactive substances on Earth. Just remember how fluorine gas nearly blinded Humphry Davy, or the horrifying havoc that chlorine wreaked on the battlefields of World War I. But it’s this very reactivity that makes the halogens so valuable in medicine. As we learned in episodes nine and seventeen, the fluoridation and chlorination of drinking water are two of the most successful public health initiatives in history.

Bromine might not be pumped into our sinks and swimming pools in the same way, but it too has a history of medical use — though it’s less of a rousing success, and more of a bizarre curiosity.

Charles Lockock was a 19th-century doctor, and one of some renown: He oversaw the births of all nine of Queen Victoria’s children.

He was also particularly concerned with studying epilepsy, although he had some rather unusual ideas. He and a handful of his contemporaries were convinced that epileptic seizures were caused by excessive masturbation, you see. He also believed this condition, which he called “hysterical epilepsy,” only affected women, you see.4

So he was very excited5 to read a report out of Germany that potassium bromide was capable of annihilating a patient’s libido. It seemed obvious that such a treatment was just the thing for his own clientele.

From 1857 to 1858, he treated fifteen epileptic women with a course of potassium bromide. …and in fourteen of those women, the epileptic seizures completely stopped.6

Now, obviously his patients’ seizures didn’t stop because their libidos were inhibited, but yes, Lockock had discovered the world’s first anticonvulsant medication. He did so by magnificently stumbling backwards into that discovery, but results are results. Thankfully, we figured out the real science behind it only a couple years later.

It wasn’t long before people discovered some over-the-counter uses for potassium bromide, too. It worked as a mild sedative and a painkiller, so it became a popular remedy for hangovers.

Sensing an opportunity, Baltimore pharmacist Isaac E. Emerson cornered the market on the stuff in 1887, publishing ads all over the world for his own patented Bromo-Seltzer. It made him extremely wealthy extremely quickly — a situation he found quite comfortable. He took to calling himself “The Bromo-Seltzer King,” and around the turn of the 20th century erected a monument to himself in downtown Baltimore: the Emerson Bromo-Seltzer Tower. Fifteen stories tall, he styled it after the Palazzo Vecchio tower in Florence, an especially treasured sight he had seen on one of his many globetrotting vacations. He improved upon the original, of course: Rather than displaying numbers, Bromo Tower’s clock faces were emblazoned with the twelve letters that spell out “BROMOSELTZER,” and the whole thing was adorned with a 51-foot tall, 20-ton glowing blue bottle of Emerson’s famous elixir.

Potassium bromide remained widely used for nearly a century, but alas, you can’t find a bottle of Bromo-Seltzer at your local apothecary these days. In the 1970s, doctors discovered that it had a tendency to quickly accumulate in the body, easily causing chronic toxicity and bromism.

The medication does live on in one way, though: Our language. Due to its sedative and libido-inhibiting effects, people today still refer to any trite and boring platitudes as bromides.

It turns out bromine just isn’t as effective in public health as its chemical siblings. In fact, it’s much more effective at making people cry. And it has a history of keeping some very bad company.

In the early 1900s, there was a small but very active community of anarchists in Europe. These were not the type of anarchists who were content to just open a bookshop — they were committed to praxis. And what a radical praxis it was!

Arson, bombings, and assassinations were all carried out in the name of liberty — perpetrated only against the rich, of course — but burglary was the crime most commonly committed, and often in spectacular fashion.

A shoemaker named Vittorio Pini stole half a million francs in Paris while on the run from Italian authorities. Alexandre Marius Jacob robbed a jeweler blind by impersonating a policeman when he was only 17.

But these bold outlaws weren’t seeking personal gain, even when vast sums of money were involved. Historian Richard Parry explains:

All these leading anarchist burglars donated sums to the cause and
defended their actions by saying that they had a ‘right’ to steal; it was a question not of gain or profit, but of principle. The ‘natural right’ to a free existence was denied to workers through the bourgeoisie’s monopoly ownership of the means of production; as the workers continued to create wealth, so the bourgeoisie continued to appropriate this wealth, a state of affairs maintained ultimately only by force, but legitimized. It was the immoral bourgeois who was the real thief, both in history and in the present; the anarchist ‘re-appropriation’ was ‘superior in morality’, it was part of a rightful restitution of wealth robbed from the working class, done with moral conviction and good intent to further ‘The Cause’.”7

In other words: It’s not about money. It’s about sending a message.

Among all the many and storied anarchist messengers in the early 20th century, none was more notorious than Jules Bonnot.8

Bonnot had a long rap sheet of petty crimes stretching back to the 1890s, when he was only a teenager. Over time, his crimes grew more sophisticated — for instance, posing as a traveling businessman to case the homes of wealthy French lawyers, before burgling them under cover of night.

But Bonnot’s criminal career reached another level on December 21, 1911, when he and three companions pulled off a heist that was remarkable for its sheer audacity: In broad daylight, wielding Browning 9mm semi-automatic handguns, they robbed a bank messenger, and then did something that no criminal in the world had ever done: They fled the scene in an automobile.

And not just any automobile. The anarchists were trying to make a point, remember, so they had stolen a 1910 Delaunay-Belleville limousine, a car known for being driven for presidents and kings. To get an idea of just how brazen this crime was, Parry offers a modern-day comparison:

Try imagining a gang ambushing a security van outside Barclays Bank on the Holloway Road, north London, armed with Uzi sub-machine guns and using a Rolls Royce Camargue as a get-away car.”

The Bonnot Gang had invented the getaway car, and they had done so in unparalleled style.

Automobiles and semi-automatic weapons were both uncommon technology at the time, so the group was able to evade the police for several months — even taunting their pursuers in the press. One of the men addressed an open letter to the police, signing off with, “I know I will be beaten, I am the weakest. But I sincerely hope to make you pay dearly for your victory. Awaiting the pleasure of meeting you, Octave Garnier.”

Bonnot one-upped his comrade when he walked into the newsroom of Le Petit Parisien, set his Browning down on the desk, and declared, “We’ll burn off our last round against the cops, and if they don’t care to come, we’ll certainly know how to find them.”

The cops did care to come, of course. There was a 100,000 franc bounty on the Bonnot Gang’s heads by that point. They finally had their confrontation on April 28, 1912, at their hideout in the Parisian suburb of Choisy-le-Roi.

Bonnot was ready. Standing alone on a balcony, he held off more than five hundred police officers, soldiers, firemen, and angry civilians for more than three hours.

Eventually, the police decided that, in order to capture or kill Bonnot, they would need to employ more unconventional means. This is where bromine enters the picture.9

You might remember the Hague Declaration Concerning Asphyxiating Gases,10 which prohibited the use of chemical weapons in international conflicts. But there was nothing preventing a country from gassing its own citizens. And so, according to some sources, this was when the French police bombarded the safe house with canisters of ethyl bromoacetate — tear gas.11 12

It works like a less severe form of chlorine or mustard gas, causing incredible pain, damaging the sensitive tissues of the eyes and lungs, but — ostensibly — not killing its victims. There is a psychological component to this weapon, as well. In 1928, the chief of the U.S. Army’s Chemical Warfare Service noted, “It is easier for man to maintain morale in the face of bullets than in the presence of invisible gas.”13

This may have been the first recorded use of tear gas, against anyone, anywhere on Earth. But historians are not in complete agreement whether the police actually employed tear gas, or merely considered its use.14 To be fair, the scene was beyond chaotic, and pristine record-keeping was nobody’s primary concern that day. Take this excerpt, from The Poisonous Cloud: Chemical Warfare In The First World War:

Except for the unspecified tear gas I have not found any material on French gas research or production before the war. I do not claim that this is conclusive, merely that if anything was done, it was handled with extreme discretion.”

I chose to highlight this particular voice of doubt because, curiously enough, it belongs to Ludwig F. Haber — son of Fritz Haber, the father of chemical warfare.15

Whether or not the police tried to gas Bonnot out, the situation soon escalated even further when authorities imploded the house with dynamite. Finally, bearing eleven gunshot wounds and pinned beneath the rubble of the demolished house, all Bonnot could do was shout, “Bunch of bastards!” before the Director of Police approached and delivered a final shot to the head.

Sadly, that is the kind of sanguinary scene where you are likely to encounter bromine, even today. There are many chemical formulations for tear gases, called “lachrymators” in the technical literature, and bromine pops up in several of them. International treaties prevent their use in warfare, but police forces around the world have freely used those chemicals domestically for over a century.

Fortunately, you need not wade into a cloud of deleterious gas to add this element to your collection, for it does have applications beyond crowd control. One of the most renowned purple dyes in history, Tyrian purple, owed its rich hue to bromine compounds, and today bromine is added to plastic products as a critical and life-saving flame retardant.

And while bromine isn’t added to our drinking water, and you can no longer purchase Emerson’s Bromo-Seltzer for your aching head, there is one remaining way you can gulp down a mouthful of element 35 in 2019: Crack open a can of Mountain Dew.

Mountain Dew and other citrus-flavored sodas contain brominated vegetable oil, an emulsifier, which keeps the various ingredients in the soda from separating like oil and water.

Some people are put off by its inclusion in their beverage, but it’s added in such small amounts that there’s very little danger. You would have to drink an absurd amount of Mountain Dew to come down with a case of bromism from it — something like three liters of the stuff, every single day, for six months.

We know that’s how much it would take, because in 1997, one very foolish anonymous man did precisely that. Suffering “headache, fatigue, ataxia, and memory loss” for over a month, it took a while for doctors to figure out that his excessive soda consumption was enough to cause toxic bromism. It was such an unusual case that it was published in the Journal of Toxicology. It’s truly astounding that, from drinking so much sugar water, it was the bromine that caused medical problems.16

Despite the relatively low risk it poses, beverage companies appear to be moving toward eliminating brominated vegetable oil from all their beverages.17 You might want to snatch up your sample now, before the opportunity vanishes like a puff of smoke, causing you to cry.

Thanks for listening to The Episodic Table of Elements. Music is by Kai Engel. To learn why your best friend can still receive a prescription for potassium bromide, visit episodic table dot com slash B r.

Next time, we’ll unlock the secrets of krypton.

Until then, this is T. R. Appleton, reminding you

Sources

  1. full caption, “Attack on the Société Générale branch in Chantilly by the Bonnot Gang.”
  2. Chemicool, Bromine Element Facts. Doug Stewart, October 2012.
  3. Uncle Tungsten: Memories Of A Chemical Boyhood, this page. Oliver Sacks,2001.
  4. Chemistry World, Potassium Bromide. Brian Clegg, November 20, 2013.
  5. But not inappropriately so, of course.
  6. The Journal Of The Royal College Of Physicians In Edinburgh, Sir Charles Lockock And Potassium Bromide.
  7. The Bonnot Gang, p. 13. Richard Parry, 1983.
  8. The Bonnot Gang, p. 21-28, 110-111, 133-139. Richard Parry, 1986. Archived here in case that copy ever goes missing.
  9. Atmospheres Of Breathing, p. 214. Lenart kof, Petri Berndtson, 2018.
  10. From our episode on nitrogen.
  11. Gas! Gas! Quick, Boys!: How Chemistry Changed The First World War, this page. Michael Freemantle, 2011.
  12. Chemical Warfare, p. 7. Amos Alfred Fries and Clarence Jay West, 1921.
  13. The Atlantic, 100 Years Of Tear Gas. Anna Feigenbaum, August 16, 2014.
  14. The History Of Nuclear, Biological, And Chemical Warfare, p. 176. Benjamin C. Garrett, 2017.
  15. I suppose that makes Ludwig and Gas Warfare siblings.
  16. Journal Of Toxicology: Clinical Toxicology, Bromism From Excessive Cola Consumption. Horowitz BZ, 1997. I feel compelled to point out, however, that Mountain Dew is not a cola.
  17. SFGate, Coke, Pepsi Dropping ‘BVO’ From All Drinks. Candice Choi, May 5, 2014. However, as of this writing, Pepsi still lists BVO as an ingredient in Mountain Dew on their official website.

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