During the mid 1800s, people left and right were succumbing to the millions of bacteria running rampant through the hospitals from one wound to another. Imagine being a patient with any major injury in the mid nineteenth century. More often than not, you would be screaming of fear of being in a hospital rather than the pain of the injury itself. How ironic is that? Think you’re safe because you didn’t die of blood loss before making it to the hospital after you got shot in the leg? Nope, you’re dying anyway because of something you can’t even see spreading diseases everywhere. These pesky little creatures otherwise known as bacteria were even more likely to take your life in a hospital because of the crowded rooms full of soon to be and already infected wounded people. Just as things seemed to be hopeless, a person came down from heaven and began to magically heal people without having them die on him due to some random bacteria. Just kidding, the guy is named Joseph Lister and he came from Yorkshire and got his medical degree in London, but it’s really no stretch to describe him as the Jesus of his time. Influenced by Louis Pasteur’s “The Germ Theory of Diseases” which every other surgeon thought to be complete hogwash, Lister sought for a solution to combat these germs, and he finally found his beloved elixir in carbolic acid. He would soon isolate the main component responsible for his remedy as the molecule phenol.
Medicine is important and all, but just how had phenol affected those who were lucky enough to never have to look at a hospital or cut in their lifetime? Believe it or not, phenol is not only an antiseptic molecule; it has many other practical uses. For instance, a derivative of phenol, trinitrophenol (picric acid) was a common component of explosives. Would you look at that? On one hand, phenol saves the lives of thousands of people, and on the other, it fabulously takes the lives of thousands in an explosive fashion, literally. Oh phenol you and even more of your ironic antics. However, its uses don’t stop there. How is this possible you ask? How can one molecule contribute so much to society? Well I’ll tell you how, and my first statement involves ice cream. That’s right; phenol is an essential molecule in synthesizing one of the most prominent ice cream flavors of all time: vanilla. You’re probably worshipping phenol by now, but allow me to contribute another factor which raises its awesomeness levels. Around the time Lister found the solution to the dreaded hospital disease, billiard balls and other goods requiring ivory to manufacture were skyrocketing in demand. As a result, the adorable elephants with ivory tusks were dangerously close to being an extinct species. Before you elephant lovers start tearing up, here’s some wonderful news. This brilliant Belgian man named Leo Bakeland formed a substance which could be used as a perfect substitute for ivory, and not only that, his material which he narcissistically named Bakelite was pretty much an all-purpose material. It made up telephones, bowls, washing machine agitators, pipe stems, furniture, fountain pens, and even various types of artwork. And so this is how phenol came to be the best molecule which changed history. The all-purpose molecule had given birth to an all-purpose material.
Phenol is a simple molecule consisting of an aromatic benzene ring with a hydroxide group attached to it. It is its simplicity, however, that gives it the potential of being the foundation of dozens of derivatives. As mentioned before, these derivatives include picric acid, bakelite, and vanilla. It is no wonder the authors Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson consider phenol to be a life-changing molecule that will continue to shape history. Considering all they’ve done for us, especially its role in allowing my favorite ice cream flavor to be synthetically created, I offer no objections to this statement. In fact, I wholeheartedly agree with it. Phenol will always be the molecule which gave meaning to my meaningless life by allowing me to inform the ignorant masses of its sheer awe-inspiring natural structure and historical impacts.