Historical accidents at Caltech, via Linus Pauling’s notebooks

Via frequent commenter qvxb, Oregon State University has scans of the lab notebooks of alumnus Linus Pauling available online, and they include descriptions of at least two lab accidents at Caltech.

One, on August 10, 1939, was an ether explosion:

Today, at about 8:30 am, Mr. Leo Brewer (on appointment as assistant for the summer at $40 a month) was preparing absolute ether in Room 351 (large organic lab.) and had an explosion. He had 40 liters of ether there. The explosion blew out all the windows and wrecked the hoods and chemical desks in the room, and caused some damage in adjoining rooms. Brewer was burned slightly. Total damage to laboratory and equipment about $14000.00

Brewer told me that he and Shei were wiping up some ether that he had spilled, and had wiped it all up when the explosion occurred. No flames were about (he used steam for the distillation). The source of fire is unknown. Shei had just stepped out into the hallway when the explosion occurred.

Koepfli heard the explosion at his home, nearly a mile away.

Another, on Thursday, Sept. 23, 1943, involved a fatal exposure to ethylchloroformate:

Shortly after 1 pm Mrs Elizabeth Swingle, Crellin Stockroom Keeper, was showered wtih ethylchlorocarbonate (ethylchloroformate, C2H5OCOCl) in the sub-basement near the elevator, perhaps because of pressure in the bottle, which contained CaCO3 as stabilizer. [William] Lipscomb heard her call, and took her under shower (cold water) in 058. Miss Rooke and Swingle, Lipscomb, Trueblood treated her with sodium bicarbonate, removed clothes, and showered her again. Lucas had ammonia put on the floor. The Pasadena Fire Dept Truck (Captain Baker) pumped air out. I arrived at 3 pm – Col. Wyman and Dr. Koepfli were in charge. At 4 pm subbasement was clear, and I dismissed the trucks. I had been at home – reached lab at 3:15.

Koepfli told Miss Rooke, Lipscomb, David Shoemaker, and Trueblood to lie down and call the doctor if any symptoms develop.

Koepfli will make a report on the accident.

Mrs. Swingle is in the Huntington Hospital, under care of Dr. Kremers.
Sept. 24, 1943. Mrs. Swingle died last night, after about 8 hours.

At 4 pm Koepfli told Dr. Kremers over the phone, in my hearing, that the treatment should be as for phosgene.

According to an obituary, Elizabeth Swingle had trained as a bacteriologist and was the wife of chemist Stanley Swingle.

Lab accidents aside, I could probably spend days poking around Pauling’s notebooks. If any Safety Zone readers take the time to do so themselves, report back what you found most interesting!

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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