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The Life of Sir William Ramsay

Sir William Ramsay K.C.B., F.R.S, joined SCI at its foundation in 1881 and served as SCI President from 1903 to 1904.

William Ramsay was born in Glasgow on October 2, 1852, the son of William Ramsay, C.E. and Catherine, née Robertson. He was a nephew of the geologist, Sir Andrew Ramsay.

Until 1870 Ramsay studied in his native town, following this with a period in Professor Rudolf Fittig's laboratory at Tübingen in Germany until 1872. While there, his thesis on orthotoluic acid and its derivatives earned him the degree of doctor of philosophy.

On his return to Scotland in 1872, Ramsay became assistant in chemistry at the Anderson College in Glasgow, and two years later secured a similar position at the University there. In 1880 he was appointed Principal and Professor of Chemistry at University College, Bristol, and moved on in 1887 to the Chair of Inorganic Chemistry at University College London - a post which he held until his retirement in 1913.

Ramsay was an outstanding experimentalist. He rolled his own cigarettes, claiming that machine-made ones were unworthy of an experimentalist, and he kept a platinum spatula on his watch chain for poking his students' precipitates.

Ramsay’s earliest works were in the field of organic chemistry. Besides his doctor's dissertation, about this period he published work on picoline and, in conjunction with Professor James Dobbie, on the decomposition products of the quinine alkaloids (1878-1879). From the commencement of the 1880s he was chiefly active in physical chemistry, his many contributions to this branch of chemistry being mostly on stoichiometry and thermodynamics. To these must be added his investigations carried on with Sidney Young on evaporation and dissociation (1886-1889) and his work on solutions of metals (1889).

It was however in inorganic chemistry that his most celebrated discoveries were made. As early as 1885-1890 he published several notable papers on the oxides of nitrogen and followed those up with the discovery of argon, helium, neon, krypton, and xenon. Led to the conclusion by different paths and, at first, without working together, both Lord Rayleigh and Sir William Ramsay succeeded in proving that there must exist a previously unknown gas in the atmosphere. They subsequently worked in their separate laboratories on this problem but communicated the results of their labours almost daily. At the meeting of the British Association in August 1894, they announced the discovery of argon.

While seeking sources of argon in the mineral kingdom, Ramsay discovered helium in 1895. Guided by theoretical considerations founded on Mendeleev's periodic system, he then methodically sought the missing links in the new group of elements and found neon, krypton, and xenon (1898). Yet another discovery of Ramsay (in conjunction with Professor Frederick Soddy), the importance of which it was impossible to foresee, was the detection of helium in the emanations of radium (1903).

In 1904, Ramsay was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry "for his discovery of the inert gaseous elements in air, and his determination of their place in the Periodic system". As a result Ramsay became a considerable celebrity in London and was cartooned both by Spy for Vanity Fair and by Henry Tonks, Head of UCL's Slade School of Art. Ramsay modestly ascribed his success in isolating the rare gases to his large flat thumb which could close the end of eudiometer tubes full of mercury.

With regard to the scientific honours which, besides the Nobel Prize, have been awarded to Ramsay, mention can be made of a great number of honorary memberships, viz. of the Institut de France, the Royal Academies of Ireland, Berlin, Bohemia, The Netherlands, Rome, Petrograd, Turin, Roumania, Vienna, Norway and Sweden; the Academies of Geneva, Frankfurt and Mexico; the German Chemical Society; the Royal Medical and Chirurgical Society of London; the Académie de Médecine de Paris; the Pharmaceutical Society, and the Philosophical Societies of Manchester, Philadelphia and Rotterdam. He also received the Davy and Longstaff Medals, honorary doctorate of Dublin University, the Barnardo Medal and a prize of $5,000 from the Smithsonian Institution, a prize of Fr. 25,000 from France (together with Moissan), and the A.W. Hoffmann Medal in gold (Berlin, 1903).

Ramsay was created K.C.B. (Knight Commander of the Order of Bath) in 1902, and was also a Knight of the Prussian order "Pour le mérite", Commander of the Crown of Italy, and Officer of the Legion d'Honneur of France.

In 1881 Ramsay married Margaret, the daughter of George Stevenson Buchanan. They had one son and one daughter. His recreations were languages and travelling, and he was also an accomplished pianist, composer, and poet.

[From Nobel Lectures, Chemistry 1901-1921, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1966]

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