Francis is a Chemist, and Chemists are Weird

Francis is a Chemist, and Chemists are Weird November 12, 2014


I keep hearing the Pope referred to as a being a chemist. Sometimes it’s meant as a good thing. Sometimes it’s meant as a bad thing. Sometimes it’s just a thing that’s mentioned because he really is a chemist.  (Master’s degree in chemistry and everything.)

As Elizabeth Scalia wrote a couple of weeks ago, chemists are in the business of looking for surprises.

What do chemists do? They “make a mess.” They seek out surprises for the sake of remedy. Muddle up a bit of mold and green leaves and you find penicillin. Pull adult stem cells from someone’s own blood, and there is a treatment for Sickle Cell Anemia. Along the way there may be a lab-fire or even some minor explosions, but the remedies arrive.

I wouldn’t know. I don’t know very many chemists, but I’ve always imagined them as rather odd people. Mad scientists. You know the type.


I also tend to think of them as smarter than me because they passed chemistry without cheating off of the kid in front of them. (Hi Brian! Thanks for helping me graduate!!!) What I didn’t ever really consider was how being brilliant, but odd would affect our Pope….or the rest of us Catholics.

Then smack in the middle of a documentary on World War I, I got it.

The narrator was talking about the first use of chlorine gas which was at Ypres, France. One of the good guy captains (I couldn’t hear his name or nationality because my 7-year-old won’t stop asking questions. Ever.)  was a super nerd who got put in charge of a bunch of other guys. He wasn’t a professional soldier, he was a scrawny looking fellow in glasses, but he’d been to college so he was the boss. He was also just happened to be a chemist.

He wasn’t super popular until the day that the Germans found a loophole in the ban on chemical warfare, and there was a huge green cloud of chlorine gas headed towards him and his men. Being a chemist, he recognized the green cloud and its funky odor. Then he did the weirdest thing ever. He told his men to take out their handkerchiefs or spare undies or any other piece of cloth and pee all over it. Once it was soaked, they were to strap it over their noses and mouths and breathe through it.

It makes me gag just to think of it.

Some of his men listened, and some decided he was mad and didn’t.

What was he thinking? Well….being a chemist, he knew that the ammonia found in urine would have a chemical reaction with the chlorine in the gas, and the pee-breathers would live.


And so they did.

One of his men wrote home about the funny look the captain had given his men when he ordered them to urinate on their handkerchiefs, and some of the fellows had flat refused.  He looked like he didn’t understand why they wouldn’t want to breathe in that goodness. The soldier recorded that the guys who trusted the captain had been largely unscathed, and that the rest of the guys hadn’t been quite so lucky. He ended his letter with a quip about trusting the higher ups who put the captain in charge.

Which brings me back to the Pope who keeps asking people to do things which are strange and backwards to them, and all of the  people argue about the discomfort of what he asks them to do and balk at what seems distasteful and strange. That maybe we could all be a little better about trusting the guy the “higher ups” have put in charge.

And then I wonder how much of what drives people crazy is just him being a mad scientist, and how much is his knowing that what he’s asking of us will protect us from something even nastier that’s headed our way.

P.S. Did you know that he was also once a night club bouncer? I don’t know exactly what that means for us, but that just might explain a few things too.


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