Why Pre-meds hate Organic Chemistry before they even begin the course

I figure that I had to work somewhere between 8 and 15 hours at the minimum wage to buy my organic chemistry textbook.  The text was English and Cassidy “Principles of Organic Chemistry” 2nd Edition.  The time was the summer of 1958 just before my junior year.  I worked at a cash register checking out groceries in beautiful Acme Markets making the princely sum of $1.00 perhour (the minimum wage then).  Social Security took .03 of the dollar, and there were union dues to pay (I don’t  recall just how much, but it’s unlikely that I’ve have received even that without the union).

I’m not sure what English and Cassidy cost, but I did try to find out by calling McGraw Hill (the publisher) to see if they knew but they didn’t. Being a packrat I still have a few chemistry books from that era, also published by McGraw Hill — Eliel “Stereochemistry of Carbon Compounds” bought in ’62 price $15.00 and “Molecular Vibrations” by E. B. Wilson (of Pauling and Wilson) for $10.00. So the more mass market English and Cassidy probably cost less — I’m guessing $8.00.

I always like to see what books profs think are best for their students, and one elite woman’s college in the area is using “Organic Chemistry” by John McMurray. Students are asked to buy it along with a study guide for a total of $238 (at the college bookstore).  Wow !  Currently the minimum wage is $7.25/hour with a social security and medicare cut out of 7.65% bringing the net down to 6.70.  That’s about 36 hours of work.

It gets worse.  There is a new edition of the work (the $238 book came out in ’07), which Amazon will sell you (along with study guide) for a mere $337.51 or just 50 hours work. This appeared 4 years after the $238 work.  Has that much changed?  Is it just another way to gouge the student?

Now to be fair,  English and Cassidy had 442 pages of text and answers to about 25% of the exercises in another 12.  The $238 version of McMurray is much larger so it has more information per page.  In addition it has far more pages, 1376 in the text and 912 in the study guide.  Pagewise that’s a ratio of (1376 + 912)/455 — about 5.  This is about the ratio of the 36 hours of work required today to the 8 required in ’58.

More importantly, the graphics in English and Cassidy were essentially nonexistent, while those in today’s books are excellent, multiple and certainly make thinking about organic chemistry easier. My wife says that graphics are difficult to print, but it seems to me that they are now so universal, that there must be some economy of scale in producing them.  Does anyone know?

A college football coach said that his job was to win just enough to make the alumni sullen but not mutinous.  This may explain a lot of the hostility going both ways between the grad students acting as teaching assistants and lab instructors, and their impoverished charges.

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  • CMCguy  On February 21, 2011 at 6:16 pm

    While I see the point raised did you or other pre-Meds have the same cost based antipathy for expensive books for other courses such as Biology and Anatomy? Some of those at least might be held on for potential references during later Med school so value was perceived not as just short term expense. Considering the cost of Med school do most go in with predetermined aversion or again is this more so a conditioned negativism because O chem has reputation as weeding tool with common impression not useful in subsequent education or practice? As a chem major I have kept majority of my chemistry texts obtained as undergrad so always felt these were an investment although did replace several on my office bookshelves when I found better resources during grad school or over the years.

    If I remember correctly (late 70s) there as good correlation of a text’s price verses class size so generic (all often could be found used) history, english and economics/business books on the low end with chemistry/other sciences in mid to upper range but art & architecture books were extremely pricey (perhaps your wife’s suggestion applies in that era too?). What bothered me more was I was two years after my brother and in taking a few of the same classes/profs found his textbooks had all been obsoleted. Thinking about a curious continued trend that during a few classes I had to pay more for a required book, and then now my kids books, than the particular course fee itself (ignoring all the customary other add on charges) and therefore I guess I do appreciate how does influence ones view of the subject.

  • luysii  On February 21, 2011 at 6:26 pm

    None of the books back in the 50s or 60s were that expensive. I didn’t think working a day and a half for a book I used all year was excessive. True I still have Grey’s anatomy because anatomy doesn’t change and people still read Euclid and Gauss for Mathematics, but (fortunately) medicine and molecular biology are moving so fast, that texts are almost out of date as soon as they are written.

    My wife was in architecture school, and those books were always more expensive as were her undergraduate books as an art history major. However, that level of detail and fidelity is not required for chemical structure, and they are computer generated for the most part, so illustrations should not be that expensive.

    It would be nice if some reader in the publishing industry could provide some enlightenment about the actual costs of the graphics in chemistry books.

  • Handles  On February 21, 2011 at 7:51 pm

    Do University bookshops get to sell these at special student prices or something? I’m sure I paid AUD 50 for Streitwieser, Heathcock and Kosower 4th ed. in 1992, but Amazon has the “Revised Printing 4th ed.” for USD 208 list price. I would never have been able to afford that as a student…

  • James  On February 25, 2011 at 1:29 am

    I took the course over 10 years ago and after 500+ hours of working with premeds, I can report that basically nothing about the content of the course has changed. The textbooks have changed slightly: the graphics in the textbooks are nicer.

    One of the incentives from the professor’s perspective will always be to make sure that students can all be assigned the same problems from the textbook. The incentive from the publisher’s perspective is to put out a new edition of each textbook every 4-5 years to reignite flagging sales. Students would obviously prefer to be able to buy a cheap used textbook, but the decision is out of their hands.

    If it’s any consolation, with the way tablets are going, I seriously doubt students will be forced to plunk down $200 for an umpteenth edition of Solomons in five years.


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