[IUCr Home Page] [Acta B] [Book Review Home Page]

Acta Cryst. (1995). B51, 892-893

Highlights of chemistry as mirrored in Helvetica Chimica Acta

Edited by M. V. Kisakurek and E. Heilbronner

Pp. v + 985. Basel: Verlag Helvetica Chimica Acta and Weinheim: VCH Verlagsgesellschaft mbH, 1994
Price DM 248. ISBN 1-906390-08-X

In the highly charged atmosphere of nationalism accompanying the first world war, chemists in neutral Switzerland faced a problem. Accustomed to publishing their work in the chemical journals of their larger neighbors, chemists who, before the war would have made their choice of journal solely on the basis of linguistic convenience or the desire to reach as wide an audience as possible through the use of the German language, the lingua franca of the chemical world of the day, hesitated, during wartime, to make choices that might be interpreted as gestures of moral or even material support for one or other of the combatant nations. And, of course, no matter which journal was chosen, the potential audience was greatly reduced. The Swiss Chemical Society, with some help from its friends in industry, resolved this issue by deciding to publish its own journal, neatly finessing the question of language parity by giving it the latinized title Helvetica Chimica Acta. To further emphasize Swiss neutrality, only contributions from Swiss laboratories were initially accepted. The story of the founding of the journal and its subsequent editorial history are entertainingly and informatively described by Edgar Heilbronner and Volkan Kisaktirek in their introduction to this delightful volume, issued to commemorate Helvetica's 75th anniversary.

The main body of the book is a series of charmingly subjective and necessarily idiosyncratic historical reviews of selected areas of chemistry as they have developed in articles in the journal over the first 75 years of its existence. Here are: Venanzi on coordination chemistry; Heimgartner and Hansen on structure and mechanisms in organic chemistry and, later, on organic photochemistry; Guggisberg and Hesse on alkaloid research; Eugster on carotinoid chemistry; Ohloff on flavor and perfume chemistry (a particularly Swiss strength occupying the attention of most of the giants); Zollinger on color chemistry; Tamm on carbohydrates, plant and microbial substances; Kalvoda on steroids; chemists from Hoffmann-La Roche on vitamins; Woggon on triterpenes; Günthard and Heilbronner on physical chemistry; Bürgi and Dunitz on structural chemistry. A rich feast, indeed!

Vladimir Prelog, in his introductory preface, declines the invidious task of identifying individual landmark contributions, leaving that choice to the reader. Your reviewer is no more anxious than he to play that game. Like Professor Prelog, I simply observe that many major contributions are highlighted, as are many meritorious lesser ones. To be mentioned at all in a work of this kind always produces a warm feeling (and, presumably, not to be mentioned produces a converse one!). I was, therefore, pleased to find my own modest contribution to the stereochemistry of the cycloalkanes cataloged. It was made while I was a post-doctoral fellow in Jack Dunitz's laboratory, and was, with Dunitz and Shearer's analysis of cyclododecane in the same issue, the first three-dimensional X-ray structure determination, from single-crystal data, of an organic compound to be reported in Helvetica. (An earlier three-dimensional analysis of adamantane, by Nowacki in 1945, was based on 16 reflections measured from a powder sample.) Seeing the reproduction of the title of the paper brought back two memories. The first was of all-night sessions in 1958, seated in front of a then state-of-the-art electronic computer (ERMETH) that disgorged, with almost uninterrupted regularity, one structure factor every 62 s! The second was the recollection that, in those days, only articles written in one of the official Swiss languages were considered, and that the formidable Emile Cherbulliez would be passing judgement on my school-boy French!

Most of the reviews in this book on organic topics are in German, with the Introduction, Venanzi's article and the physical and structural reviews being given in English. However, even in these latter topics, most of the papers cited are in German. English language articles did not appear in the journal until the late 1960's, although, with characteristic Swiss business acumen, the editorial board cheerfully accepted paid advertisements in that language at a much earlier date! The acceptance of English, coupled with the opening of Helvetica to articles from outside Switzerland, did much to move the journal into the front rank of chemical periodicals, where it remains today. Articles in the Swiss languages still account for about 20% of the journal's contents, stubbornly resisting the spread of English as the new lingua franca. When I recently asked a Swiss friend, impressively fluent in English, why he and a senior colleague had elected to publish an important and lengthy article in Helvetica in German, when an English version would have attracted a much wider audience, he replied, `Ah, but it would not have had the exactness!' A comment in the tradition of the quotation from Boileau cited by the editors as embodying Cherbulliez's editorial philosophy - Ce que l'on conçoit bien s'énonce clairement et les mots pour le dire arrivent aisément'. The more so in one's native tongue.

Books of this kind are not to be read at a sitting, but provide an unending source of historical gems when dipped into over time. Who would not rejoice to rediscover the series title from Firmenich AG - `Sur l'arôme de viande de boeuf grillée', or the splendid `Analysen alter Weine - 1834er Yvorne und 1840er Glacier' of 1919, whose authors assured their readers in closing that `Zum Schluss sei neben der Wiedergabe dieser Analysen-werte immerhin erwähnt, dass beide Weine sich noch in guter Verfassung befanden. Der 1 834er Yvorne war im Geruch reintönig, im Geschmack etwas hart, mit sogenannter Sulfatfirne. Der 1 840er Glacier duftete stark nach Estern; im Geschmack war er etwas brandig'. More seriously, background literature references in hosts of contemporary papers are brought to life by these reviews, making easier, in Prelog's words, `the task of evaluating the merits of one's predecessors'. This is an enjoyable pursuit, even when one is in danger of becoming a predecessor! For the young, who are in the vanguard of the advance of science, the work can be recommended as helping to instill a sense that they too will one day provide the shoulders for others to stand upon. All of the contributors are to be congratulated for their part in this wonderful labor of love. Not only Swiss chemists, but all with an interest in the development of chemistry should find the book stimulating and enjoyable. I don't intend to part with my already well worn review copy!

Robert F. Bryan

Department of Chemistry
University of Virginia
VA 22901

Copyright © 1997 International Union of Crystallography

IUCr Webmaster