The aim of this post is to give you some ideas for furthering your teaching of the international dimension.

You may or may not heard of Primo Levi. I came across his name recently when carrying out some research into graphene. The name seemed unusual to me and I thought I would dig a little deeper and see what I could find out. Boy, was I happy that I did this – what a guy!

Primo Levi was born in Italy (Turin) in 1919 and was the son of Jewish parents. He was always the brightest pupil in school and went on to study chemistry at the University of Turin around 1937. As a Jew, he saw a people’s attitudes to him gradually worsen as he grew older and this was brought to a head in 1940 when Italy aligned itself with Germany.

Due to the racial laws and fascism in Italy at this time, Primo found it difficult to get a supervisor for his graduating thesis on Walden Inversion (more on this later). Eventually he did but when he graduated his certificate bore the statement “of Jewish race”.

By Unknown (Mondadori Publishers)

During World War II he became involved with the Italian resistance movement but was arrested and transported to Auschwitz where he survived for 11 months before the camp was liberated.

After the War he worked for a paint company and was eventually promoted to chief chemist but also became involved with organisations remembering the horror of the concentration camps.

He also started writing, not very successfully at first, but eventually he became a major Italian literary figure. His writing was varied and covered chemistry to the horrors of life at the concentration camps to poetry.

So, what about Walden inversion – what on earth is this? It is hopefully something you are familiar with though your teaching of organic chemistry, although it is something you are not probably aware of as ‘Walden inversion’. The reaction is the inversion of a chiral carbon in a chemical reaction. It is a reaction that converts one enantiomer into the other (a good analogy is an umbrella being turned inside out in a gale) and an example of this reaction would be an SN2 reaction, for example bromomethane and hydroxide ions.

Do you have a chemist whom you admire or respect for a particular reason? If you do, please feel free to post some information on them below as we would love to hear about them.

This article was adapted from two Wikipedia pages: