15. Phosphorus: Dealing With The Devil

The history of phosphorus is largely a tale of people getting their hands dirty. Very, very dirty.

Featured above: The Alchemist Discovering Phosphorus, a 1771 painting by Joseph Wright of Derby that portrays Hennig Brand’s historical experiment.

Show Notes

Take 2: Well, it finally happened: Technological disaster. You might notice that this episode is a little rough around the edges, and a little light on music. Basically, at the eleventh hour, my audio project got corrupted somehow, causing me to lose several hours of work. I had to redo the entire edit and frankly didn’t have the time to do as good a job as I did the first time around. My apologies for a somewhat less enjoyable listening experience.

More Unhappy Endings: Brand may have made a monumental scientific discovery, but it still wasn’t really what he was looking for. He wanted gold, after all.

Unfortunately, he never found it. After his discovery, he kept his formulation a secret, only selling it to other scientists when times got truly desperate. This actually led to other chemists, like Robert Boyle, receiving the credit for the discovery of phosphorus for many years until further documentation was uncovered, revealing where they learned the trick from.

A Small Box Of Crayons: White and red phosphorus are different allotropes of element 15, like how coal and diamond are different allotropes of carbon. White phosphorus is the one that Hennig Brand discovered in urine, and it’s the most unstable. Red phosphorus is a little more well-behaved, and black phosphorus is an extremely stable allotrope. A mixture of black and red phosphorus is sometimes called “Violet Phosphorus,” but is not actually a unique allotrope.

Recharging ATP: Respiration is really a pretty complicated phenomenon, and well outside the scope of this podcast. For an introductory look at what’s going on, though, Crash Course has this excellent video:

No Clever Subhead Here: Unlike chlorine gas, white phosphorus is a chemical weapon that still sees wartime use today, despite being at least as horrible. The United States admitted to the use of white phosphorus-based incendiary weapons in Fallujah in 2004, despite originally claiming (somewhat ludicrously) that white phosphorus was only used for “illumination.” The U.S. also used phosphorus-based incendiary weapons during Operation Desert Storm. The Israeli military used white phosphorus weapons against Palestinian civilians in Gaza in a “deliberate or reckless way” in 2009, and U.S.-led forces probably used those weapons in Syria at least as recently as 2017.

Too Grim: In Episode 7, we mentioned the successors to chlorine gas: Nerve gas, weapons that were even more frightening. These are also phosphorus-based weapons, but they’re not firebombs. They interfere with ATP’s mechanism of action, leading to paralysis and eventually suffocation due to an inability to inhale oxygen. It is a horrific way to die.

Sarin is one of these nerve agents, and in the early 1950s, the United Kingdom was running tests with the newly discovered substance at their labs in Porton Down. These tests often involved human subjects, including Ronald Maddison, a 20-year-old British soldier. The government told him that they were investigating cures for the common cold; what they actually did was pour a single drop of liquid sarin onto his skin.

He died in agony.

Tests at Porton Down involving the use of Sarin on British soldiers continued at least until the 1980s.

I didn’t want to include this story in the main episode, but I do find it gripping and worth knowing about. More details can be found in this Guardian article or in various books, including Ulf Schmidt’s Secret Science: A Century Of Poison Warfare And Human Experiments.

Click To Read Transcript


  1. The Atlantic, What’s So ‘American’ About John Milton’s Lucifer? Edward Simon, March 16, 2017.
  2. Encyclopedia Britannica, Match. Last edited April 13, 2017.
  3. Spartacus Educational, The 1888 London Matchgirls Strike.
  4. RDH, The Return Of The Dreaded … ‘Phossy Jaw’. Lynne Slim, July 1, 2009.
  5. BBC Legacies, Setting The Workers Alight: The East End Match Girls’ Strike.
  6. Science Direct, Adenosine Triphosphate. Basic Neurochemistry (Eighth Edition), 2012.
  7. The National Museum Of American History, The Guano Islands Act Of 1856.
  8. Smithsonian Magazine, How The Gold Rush Led To Real Riches In Bird Poop. Jackson Landers, February 17, 2016.
  9. Atlas Obscura, When The Western World Ran On Guano. Cara Giaimo, October 14, 2015.
  10. It is home to a lone coconut seedling. At least, it was, about 15 years ago. Someone should go check on the poor thing.
  11. The Washington Post, The Guano Islands Act. Kevin Underhill, July 8, 2014.
  12. Encyclopedia Britannica, Battle of Midway. Last edited July 26, 2016.
  13. Stanford Computer Science, Firebombing In WWII: A Brief Introduction. Eric Roberts, British Technology And The Second World War.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *