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60 Years in Lensfield Road

Alumni have been sharing memories of working in the Lensfield Road building, which celebrated the 60th anniversary of its official opening in November 2018. We've received some great stories - see below - but would love more, so please keep them coming!

Stephen Palmstrom, who did his PhD here from 1970-1973, says: "One of my memories is that of the freezers with a number of unlabelled bottles that were left well alone lest they exploded!" 

Megan Lewis Healy remembers "...arriving at Lensfield Road after hockey training and catching a loose shoelace tightly around the pedal right in front of the steps. You can imagine the result." 

Tom Jones (Pembroke 1963) recalls "the practical entrance exam in December 1962. One of the major exercises was to identify a parade of substances - liquids and solids - given no information. (I assumed none were deadly poisonous or otherwise dangerous.) I tried all sorts of tests but with no success. Just 10 minutes to go, and hot under the collar was putting it mildly! Finally I recognised a pale cream precipitate after mixing two of the liquids. They must be solutions of silver nitrate and a chloride. All the rest quickly fell into place. Whoever chose the substances was very clever. And if I hadn't recognised the silver chloride...?"

Mark Hanning-Lee (Natural Sciences 1982-85) also has memories of the building. "The air handlers did not work, so the fume hoods reduced the air pressure in the building below ambient pressure. The pressure difference made it difficult for some people to open the doors at the main undergraduate entrance, especially for smaller undergraduates. The doors faced north and were even more difficult in a north wind.

"At that time, undergraduates washed their own glassware using acetone. A lot of acetone. In the open labs with gloves, but no fume hood. We left the building with the smell of acetone in our sinuses and in the back of our throats! The smell dissipated after about fifteen minutes outside the labs. Our non-Chemistry peers heard our stories and were glad not to be studying Chemistry.

"Brian Johnson gave excellent lectures, showing the relevance of chemistry to industrial research. Because my mother had an applied chemistry business (fibreglass roofing), Brian's anecdotes resonated with me.

"My first research project was with Prof. I W M Smith on iodine photochemical lasers. I went on to a PhD and then to industrial research / government testing in America. My lab partner went on to become a tenured chemistry professor in France.

"Our first-year demonstrator was Nigel; a sarcastic Londoner. I broke a mercury-in-glass thermometer and spilled some mercury. To Nigel's credit, he took this very seriously, explained the hazards, and acted to contain the spill and the vapors. This was a useful lesson in safety that has stood me in good stead. I later planned tests with chemical warfare agents in Dugway Proving Ground, Utah. The Dugway labor contractor (Jacobs) also provided excellent safety training that built upon early training from Cambridge."

Brian Tyler moved into the physical chemistry section of Lensfield Road in 1958 and recalls being "the first occupant of a lab on the mezzanine floor overlooking the main entrance - an excellent viewing point. This was in the second year of my PhD with Sandy Ashmore and I shared the lab with another of Sandy's students, Mike Burnett.

"Sharing with him was entertaining. He seldom came in before 10 by which time I had made a pot of percolated coffee (our only use of a bunsen burner) and he would often bring cakes from Fitzbillies. He smoked a pipe. Wandering over to chat by my desk, he would shake out a match and discard it into my waste bin. Often this would be followed by a ball of flame from the ether-soaked cotton wool I had used to clean the Apiezon grease off one of my vacuum taps. No harm was done. We built our vacuum systems on benches, but all the services came from the window-end of the lab so we had to run power, gas, water along our benches. Mike had a long run, as he used an L-shaped bench, and his mains supply ran along the top of the top of the bench in sections linked by connector blocks. Some just showed the bare wires. One day as he wandered around, seeking inspiration and tapping a metal ruler on the bench, he shorted his mains supply. Shock, suprise, delay but nothing worse.

"I investigated the reaction of H202 with NO, getting some high test peroxide (99.8%) liquid H202 as my vapour source. The waste products from reaction were collected in the liquid N2 traps before the pumps. At the end of each day the traps were taken off and left in a fume cupboard. Staying late one night with the vacuum system closed down, I heard a repeated hiss and, looking round, saw drops of liquid falling from the inner tube of the trap onto the wood block floor, each one creating a small burst of flame. It was the H202 residue melting and igniting the dust and wax on the block floor. So perhaps we are lucky that the Lensfield Road labs still stand. I did change my disposal method after that..." 

Jeremy Freeman (Peterhouse 1954-57) was in "the first batch of undergraduate students to use the then new Lensfield Road building". He says, "I remember a really helpful lab steward called Les. And I recall Sir Alexander Todd (as he then was) making his royal progresion round the lab, inspecting the preparations we had synthesised. I had never been very good at practical work of any kind and I received some rather acid remarks about the small number and limited range of my hard-won products. The rhyme about him that used to circulate is: 'Professor Todd thinks he's God. Professor Mott knows he's not.' "