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Benedetti-Pichler:
The Father of
American Microchemistry

David B. Sabine

(a reprint from Chemistry Vol. 42, pp. 12-15, June 1969)


A hand, a small dish from the dime store in the other, and a twinkle inhis eye.  "Now gentlemen," he said, "you will need aglass cutter." With that, he shattered the dish with the stroke ofthe hammer, picked up a shard, and held it aloft.  "See, the edgeof the glaze makes a perfect glass cutter even for capillaries.  Andit costs only 10 cents, or nothing, if you broke one doing the breakfastdishes this morning."

To hundreds of students and professions, too, this was their introductionto microchemistry and its chief exponent, Anton Alexander Benedetti-Pichler. Born in Vienna in 1894, he was raised in a small village near what is nowthe border of Yugoslavia.  Here he received his primary education,and, by his own admission, was a lively youngster. "We boys were somelittle devils.  The teachers ruined several Manila canes on our backs." He went on to the Polytechnic Institute in Graz, but his studies were interruptedby World War I.

In 1914, at the time of the assignation of the Archduke at Sarajevo,Pichler and a schoolmate were hiking in Albania.  They immediatelyheaded for home, but were hindered by troop movements.  Several timesthey barely escaped arrest as spies.

His attempt to enlist in the Emperorís Army failed because ofa suspected heart condition but when physical standards were relaxed inthe summer of 1915, Pichler was drafted.  At first he served on theItalian front where, as he said, "It was not so bad.  We playedcards most of the time but got up occasionally to fire our rifles."

This, of course, was a simplification.  His company consisted mostlyof peasants, with a scattering of businessmen.  Pichler liked themand they liked him.  Even then, he had the attributes of  a teacher. At the request of the commanding officer, Pichler organized a school andfilled many a dull hour profitably.  As he said later, he lectured"on anything I could pull out of memory, from trigonometry to phasesof classic history or the art of mountain climbing.  We all had a verygood time."

Then his battalion was thrown into the breach of the Russian front andthings were different.  He had several narrow escapes.  In oneinstance, a bullet entered his clothing at the left shoulder and emergedat the right, piercing six layers of overcoat and jacket without damaginghis shirt or touching his skin.  His only wound came when a piece ofshrapnel grazed his right thumb, drawing, as he remarked, ìone wholedrop of blood.î
The end of the war found is family, once well-to-do, nearly destitute. Postwar Austria had nothing to offer, but Pichler learned of a commerciallaboratory in Frankfort on the Main that needed an analyst.  Such positionswere reserved for German citizens but, because a qualified German couldnot be found, Pichler got the job.

In spite of obstacles caused by shortages in equipment and supplies,he managed to set up and operate a laboratory for elemental microanalysis. At the time, this was the only microanalytical laboratory in Germany, andit won for him the friendship of Fritz Pregl, who later won the Nobel Prizefor development of microanalytical techniques.

When Professor Emich, at Preglís instigation, offered Pichlera position as lecture assistant with opportunity for further study at Graz,Pichler immediately accepted and trained a successor.  While waitingfor the academic year to open, he worked as an analyst in a factory in Yugoslavia. Here, he often said, he learned much, but mostly about "how thingsshould not be done."

After six weeks he had enough.  The precipitating incident was afire which, at "3 A.M., found me on the roof of the engine house playingwater on it while all other buildings around it were in flames.  Idid not have time to find my belt.  My pants kept slipping down andwere soaked in acid.  When dawn broke, I looked like a robber, withmy shoes disintegrating and my pants full of holes up to the knee. At 11A.M. I took the train [back to] . . . Graz."

During his first years there, he did not have an easy time.  Emichwas an exacting chief.  Pichler was charged with the lecture preparationsbut Emich always did the demonstrations personally.  Pichler also hadto write progress reports for the journals, in addition to his own studies. Later, as requests for lectures and demonstrations deluged Emich, Pichlerwas frequently sent tot take his place.  In fulfilling these assignments,Pichler made many friends and accumulated a wealth of experience, includingthe opportunity to attend a special course at the Zeiss Werke in Jena.

Playing host to visitors who came from all over the world to see Emichíslaboratory was another of Pichlerís duties.  These contactswere valuable, but economic conditions in Austria were still bad and theentertainment involved frequently raised hob with his budget.  As heput it:  "Guests may tip the cook, but Dr. Pichler cannot accepta tip."

One guest, however, repaid his hospitality in a most rewarding manner.J.B. Niederl convinced his department head, William McTavish, that Pichlerwas just the man they were looking for to undertake the establishment ofthe microanalytical discipline at New York University.  The offer wastendered and Niederl clinched the deal by assuring Pichler that YellowstoneNational Park ñ a place he longed to visit ñ was easily reachedby car from New York City.

Thus, in September of 1929, Pichler and his wife arrived in New York. Any doubts in their minds relative to the permanence of the move were dispelledby the trip to Yellowstone.  That they had somewhat misled as to thedistance was of no consequence.  They both fell in love with this countryand here they stayed.  Pichler taught microchemistry at New York Universityuntil 1940.  Then he was appointed to the faculty of Queens College,Flushing, N.Y., where he remained until his retirement in 1964.

In preparation for this event, he had purchased a worn-out farm in SouthCarolina.  It was his plan to apply chemical knowledge to the restorationof the landís fertility.  But this was not to be.  A fewweeks short of a year after leaving New York he died of a heart attack.

Like most great men; Pichler was a simple man.  This was particularlyapparent in his approach to a problem.  He did not care for expensiveapparatus.  On the contrary, he was a master of the uncomplicated gadget. The glazed edge of a piece of broken crockery which he used for a glasscutter is a typical example.

He often followed this one bit of showmanship with another ñ makingcapillaries.  Pointing out the hottest part of the flame in a gas burner,we would heat a piece of glass tubing.  When it was soft enough, hisassistant would grasp one end and run rapidly away ñ frequently allthe way out of the room.  When this was done properly ñ andwit Pichler it usually was ñ a long capillary with a uniform borewas produced.  Cutting this into convenient lengths with the brokendish, we would illustrate the use of the microscope  in measuring itsinner and outer diameters.  He would then show how a microscope canbe used in procedures such as the transfer of liquids, formation of precipitates,recrystallization, distillation, and sublimation ñ all with a littlepiece of glass tubing!

He determined melting points by regulating the heat input to resistancewire stretched across the microscope stage. Sophisticated apparatus forthis is commonplace today.  But this was a novelty 40 years ago. Another impressive exposition was the analysis of a streak made by a silvercoin on frosted glass.  He performed the precipitation and color reactionsfor silver and copper under the microscope.  He proved the dissociationof sodium at high temperatures by fusing at about 1200C, adding a drop ofwater to the melt, and indicating the alkalinity by litmus paper. (Caution:  This experiment requires considerable skill and is not recommendedfor beginners.)

Demonstrations such as these could not be observed by a class as a whole. To circumvent this difficulty, Pichler used microprojection.  Althoughthis was not new, he developed the technique to the fullest extent and wasa strong advocate of its use.  With it, large groups could see thecare and attention to details which made for technical elegance of his procedures. He also extended microprojection to microphotography.  Focusing theimage on a vertical screen, he photographed the picture with an ordinarycamera, thus producing microphotographs without the expensive paraphernaliausually required.

To reach even larger groups, Pichler prepared a number of teaching filmswith the help of his graduate students.  These illustrated the finessesof his manipulations and are still available.  (Further informationabout these films may be obtained from Anne G. Loscalzo, Zeckendorf Campus,Long Island University, Brooklyn, N.Y. 11201.)

In the organization of these classroom demonstrations, Pichler drew heavilyon his experience with Professor Emich at Graz.  But Pichler added,improved, enlarged, and embellished until his own lectures and presentationsbecame never-to-be-forgotten classics.

Although Pichlerís principal contributions to the science of microanalysiswere his teaching methods and lecture experiments, he also devised and inventedwhen necessary.  One spur-of-the-moment improvisation was the creationof a microburner merely by unscrewing the barrel of a Bunsen burner. Others have now become standard pieces of apparatus.  Lack of equipmentwas no obstacle to Pichler, but he always favored the uncomplicated.

Furthermore, he advocated a thorough, visible inspection of a sampleand the use of nondestructive tests whenever possible.  Once, at aresearch conference, a conferee mentioned a difficulty he was having withthe formation of large crystals of a certain chemical.  The problemwas to determine the nature of an imperfection without destroying the crystalsthemselves.  After an extensive discussion, during which the proposedinstrumentation became costlier and more sophisticated, Pichler, who hadlistened silently, suddenly asked, ìHas anyone looked at this underthe microscope?î  No one had, and microscopic examination solvedthe problem!

Microchemistry, as the name implies is chemistry on a small scale. As defined by Pichler, it ìdeals with the development, testing, correlation,and systematization of the methods for handling of small quantities of materials,and for the observation of their properties . . . The upper limit of thesize  is reasonable defined by the statement that the quantity of materialtaken should be so small as to prevent the use of traditional methods ofworking.  The lower limit is determined by the progress in microtechnique. . . It does not imply the use of extremely sensitive methods.  Thesensitivity of a test has just the same significance in microanalysis asin macroanalysis.

In the microgram range and lower, physical factors, for example, surfacetension, play a role that cannot be ignored as they are in conventionalmethods and this requires a completely new approach.  Pregl was thefirst to develop microchemistry, but Pichler was one of its first practitioners. He can rightfully be called the father of American microchemistry, not onlybecause of his many contributions to its development but also for his vigorouspromotion of the discipline in this country.

Also, Pichler fought strenuously to improve the status of the Americananalyst.  This wasnít easy in the days when organic chemistswere regarded as the only true scientists and the analytical laboratorywas tucked away in a corner that nobody else used.  However, this situationdid not occur in Europe.  There, the analyst was held in esteem. Men such as Pregl, Emich, and Feigl devoted their lives to analytical research.

Almost single-handedly, Pichler eventually raised the analyst in thiscountry from the status of ìcookbook technicianî to that ofa true scientist.  The sophisticated techniques of today, without whichmodern industry could not operate, are largely the results of his constantreiteration to the importance of analytical information and of his contributionstoward making that information responsive to industrial and academic needsalike.

Pichlerís reputation was world-wide.  He wrote many textsand numerous papers, and was a founder and past president of the AmericanMicrochemical Society, formerly known as the Metropolitan MicrochemicalSociety.  During his lifetime, many honors were bestowed on him. After his death, the American Microchemical Society established the A.A.Benedetti-Pichler memorial Award in the form of a plaque bearing his likenessin bas-relief.  The first of these was presented in 1966.

Pichler exemplified Sir William Oslerís ideal "to bear successwith humility." He was always approachable, listening to both ineptneophyte and Nobel Prize winner with the same eager concentration. His enthusiasm was contagious and he had a personal charm that captivatedall who came in contact with him.  As a teacher, his influence wasincalculable.

 


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