Sunday, May 12, 2013

Edith Frank and the Chemistry of Esters

Edith Frank was my high school chemistry teacher at The Bronx High School of Science. A taskmaster in the classroom with a fierce passion for science, Mrs. Frank enjoyed the choreography of molecules in reaction and would quickly point out words used in chemistry that described things in ordinary life such as the concept of a catalyst. Though I enjoyed the art of chemistry, I was resistant to its mathematical aspects. I would have preferred to study the life of Dmitri Mendeleev and the stories behind each element in his Periodic Table of Elements.

Mrs. Frank was patient, worldly and clever. Some students were prone to making jokes about her appearance as she wore an impeccably coiffed wig, had perfectly penciled eyebrows, and wore a distinctive red lipstick that screamed Chanel. Edith Frank reminded me of Betty Glassman, a widow who lived in my apartment building on 191st Street in the Bronx who wore Chanel No. 5 every day and had a singing chihuahua. Betty and Edith didn't look alike, but each had the sophisticated carriage of a grande dame that never heads for the exit door in memory.

What I remember most about Edith Frank was that she turned me on to chemistry when everything in my being resisted it. This transformation came when our class focused on the synthesis of fragrant esters in a lab session. Our task was to combine acetic acid and iso-Amyl Alcohol to make iso-Amyl Acetate; a banana ester used to create banana flavor in the food industry. Like Sharon Longert, my fifth grade teacher at P.S. 33 in the Bronx, Edith Frank nurtured my olfactory mind. Chemistry became magical when I could relate it to my sense of smell and taste.

If you google Edith Frank you'll find the mother of the acclaimed Holocaust diarist Anne Frank. Anne’s mother dominates the search algorithm because she’s searched more frequently than a retired chemistry teacher from The Bronx High School of Science. The utility of the Internet as a search vehicle, outside of access to birth/death records and obituaries, is trumped by serendipity when you search for information attached to a person. I had the good fortune of locating an essay, which features Edith Frank, in the Meadowood Anthology 1905-2011: Memories in Miniature.

Luise David was Edith Frank's neighbor and the two Upper West Side apartment dwellers became travel companions. David's essay, "How I Discovered Mt. Fuji One Morning", proves that Edith Frank's "worldliness" was not a byproduct of my imagination; at sixteen my writer's mind was able grasp the elements of her character more quickly than those which graced the molecules in Mendeleev's table.

I never heard about a "Mr. Frank" or any Frank children when I attended The Bronx High School of Science. David's essay does not venture into Mrs. Frank's private life and so these curiosities remain a mystery. I am grateful to have had Edith Frank as a chemistry teacher and hope that serendipity leads to more information about who she was outside the classroom.

Luise David's essay, "How I Discovered Mt. Fuji One Morning", can be found on pages 43 and 44 of Meadowood Anthology 1905-2011: Memories in Miniature.

Esterification is a chemical process that takes place when wine undergoes aging. Some of wine's esters (up to 160 at last count) can be found on the "fruity" portion of the wine aroma wheel designed by Ann C. Noble