Le Couteur, Penny 1942-
Le COUTEUR, Penny 1942-
Chemistry teacher and author. Capilano College, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, dean of arts and sciences, 2003—.
(With Jay Burreson) Napoleon's Buttons: How Seventeen Molecules Changed History, Tarcher/Putnam Press (New York, NY), 2003.
As a girl growing up in Auckland, New Zealand, Penny Le Couteur never owned a chemistry set: "It was not done for New Zealand girls in the 1950s to have [them]," she explained to an interviewer for SCWIST News Online. So she borrowed them, and playing with them was pure fun. After receiving her doctorate, she became a chemistry teacher, a lifelong career that earned her the appointment to dean of arts and sciences at Capilano College in 2003.
As Le Couteur told the SCWIST News interviewer, in the 1960s teaching was an almost inevitable occupation for New Zealand women. Rather than teaching chemistry to high school students, she left Auckland for the University of California, Santa Barbara, to pursue a Ph.D. Over her years of teaching, she collected stories of chemistry in history, and in 1999 she decided to use those resources to write a book. Although she knew little about publishing, Le Couteur wrote a single-page letter and sent it to numerous agents. The third one liked the idea, and her book proposal was accepted with an advance. "I think to have a chance to sell a non-fiction book you have to have a good idea, credibility and you have to write well enough that the editor can see how it can be fixed," she told the SCWIST News Online writer.
With her coauthor, industrial chemist Jay Burreson, Le Couteur produced Napoleon's Buttons: How Seventeen Molecules Changed History. The book comprises seventeen chapters, each one pertaining to a particular molecule or group of related molecules, their discovery, chemical structure, and role in history. The book describes the discovery of ascorbic acid (vitamin C), which prevents scurvy, thus allowing sailors to survive long sea voyages. This, in turn, allowed colonizing countries to solidify their grip on their empires. Other topics include how nylon completely changed women's fashions; the quest for addictive chemicals; and how the amazing wealth created by the export of olive oil allowed Greek citizens time to study arts, sciences, and politics.
David Goodstein, reviewing Napoleon's Buttons for American Scientist, commented that while historians will forever wrangle about whether history is in the hands of "inexorable underlying forces or is made instead of individual heroes and villains," Le Couteur and Burreson say it is neither. "History, they say, is made by molecules." Indeed, the book's very title is taken from the historical fact that the tin buttons on the uniforms of Napoleon's soldiers disintegrated during their failed invasion of Russia. The authors explain that at 56 degrees Fahrenheit, the molecular structure of tin changes, and the mineral gradually turns to powder. "That, the authors say, is why paintings of Napoleon's soldiers in the snow always show them holding their uniforms together instead of fighting the Russians," wrote Goodstein.
Reviewers received Napoleon's Buttons enthusiastically. A Kirkus Reviews writer called the book "thoughtful, often surprising, smoothly written." Likewise, Goodstein remarked that "the historical anecdotes … may sometimes be simplistic, but they are always interesting and are an effective way of getting us to learn a lot of first-class chemistry." And Louisa Dalton, writing for Chemical and Engineering News, called Le Couteur and Burreson's work "clever, accessible, and informative."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
American Scientist, July-August, 2003, David Goodstein, "Lessons from the Past," p. 370.
Chemical and Engineering News, October 6, 2003, Louisa Dalton, review of Napoleon's Buttons: How Seventeen Molecules Changed History, p. 42.
Kirkus Reviews, March 1, 2003, review of Napoleon's Buttons, p. 363.
Library Journal, May 15, 2003, Wade M. Lee, review of Napoleon's Buttons, p. 120.
SCWIST News Online,http://www.harbour.sfu.ca/ (August, 2003), interview with Le Couteur.