Litercurious Book Review

TitleNapoleon’s Buttons
AuthorPenny Cameron Le Couteur, Ph.D. & Jay Burreson, Ph.D.
PublisherJeremy P Tarcher; Reprint edition (May 24, 2004)
FormatKindle, Paperback, Audiobook     
ISBN #10-1585423319   ISBN #-13 (978-1585423316)     

“for this physicist, reading Napoleon’s Buttons was like being a kid accidentally locked overnight in a candy store. The treats? Lots of neat chemistry that I should have known but didn’t (having had awful college chemistry teachers), a whole bunch of entertaining anecdotes, and not a few breathtaking historical generalizations.”

David Goodstein, American Scientist


Dr. Penny Le Couteur, Ph.D., was born in New Zealand and attended the University of Auckland. She attained her Ph.D. from the University of California in Santa Barbara. Dr. Le Couteur has been teaching chemistry for over three decades. She was recognized as an outstanding educator of chemistry in Canadian Collages. She was formerly The Head of Capilano’s Chemistry Department as well as the chair of Pure and Applied Sciences.

Dr. Le Couteur currently works as an award-winning professor in the Dean of Arts and Sciences office at Capilano College, British Columbia, Canada. She currently resides in North Vancouver, Canada. 

Doctor Jay Burreson, Ph.D., is the co-author of Napoleon’s Buttons: How Seventeen Molecules Changed History. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Hawaii. He worked as an Industrial Chemist for Mag Tech in Oregon, USA. Currently, he is a Fellow of Marine Natural Products at the University of Hawaii, USA.


This title was initially intended for gifted students age 14-18 years old. Astonishingly, it has been favorably received by a considerably more diverse audience from children to adults. This scholarly work will appeal not only to those with an academic background, but also to those with little or no background in chemistry.


Napoleon’s Buttons is a refreshing read that combines not one but two disciplines: organic chemistry and associated history. The book was authored with the intention of it being an introductory primer for students of organic chemistry with-in the age range of 14-18 years old. However, this text has proven to be a hit with adults as well. 

The authors have taken the subjects of chemistry and history and melded them together to produce a compelling combination. The prose are skillfully written in a coherent and  accessible style with plenty of illustrations, formulae, and comprehensive end of chapter summaries. In my humble opinion, these summaries are irreplaceable as they allow the reader to glean the bulk of the information in the chapter in a convenient bite-sized manner. The chapters cover various molecules, complete with a concise anecdotal historic context for each. They included isomers and chirality concepts in an intelligible manner for those unfamiliar with the terms.

Central to the success of this volume is the historic connections of the various interactions between historical influences, social and cultural pressures, and the political forces of the time. In the case of olive oil, all those factors were changed through the popularity of the resultant product.




Students will find the script to be compelling reading on a number of levels. The formulae are aptly described and easy to understand. The context strengthened the subject considerably. The science described in this text is similar to The Scientific American and not as demanding as The New Scientist Magazine. The combination of story telling and the scientific underpinning makes this book a fascinating and engrossing read.


Although the title suggests that there are only 17 molecules discussed, there are more. In addition, I question why a glossary was not included in a text meant for teenagers. Although the first chapters provide a brief introduction to chemistry, I feel a more comprehensive introduction would have been helpful for all those who have no prior knowledge of the scientific discipline. This would be incredibly beneficial for those with little or no instruction in the use or knowledge of chemical formulae. 


American Scientist, July-August, 2003, David Goodstein, review of Napoleon’s Button: How Seventeen Molecules Changed History, p. 370.

Booklist, May 1, 2003, Gilbert Taylor, review of Napoleon’s Buttons, p. 1561.

Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood, Dr. Oliver Sacks M.d., Link: Here Vintage; Reprint edition (December 11, 2013)

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.

Chemical and Engineering News: Link: Here (October 6, 2003), Louisa Dalton, review of Napoleon’s Buttons.

The Violinist’s Thumb, Sam Keen: Link: Here Back Bay Books; Reprint edition (July 16, 2013)

Seeds of Change by Henry Hobhouse [No Kindle Ed.] Link: Here Counterpoint; Reprint edition (November 22, 2005)