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Department of Chemistry, 1755-1971

Identifier: EUA IN1/ACU/C2


  • Creation: 1755-1971


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Biographical / Historical

The 'Chair of Physik and Chymistry' was established in 1713, with James Crawford (1682-1731) as first professor. A Chair of Chemistry at Cambridge predated Edinburgh by a decade. Oxford was not to have one until the 19th century. Under Andrew Plummer (1697-1756) and John Innes (d1773) the couse was offered as being taught 'according to the Method of the celebrated Herman Boerhaave, at Leyden'. The College Physik Garden was also well utilised. Amongst the students of this period was James Hutton (1726-1797) who went on to be recognised as one of science's great innovators and a founder member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

William Cullen (1710-1790) became joint professor with Plummer in 1755 and then third professor the following year. He developed the teaching mechanisms within the department, moving away from that of Boerhaave, developing the teaching laboratory and the application of chemistry to industry. His lectures were also in English rather than Latin.

Cullen's successor was Joseph Black (1728-1799). He had assisted Cullen earlier in Glasgow. Black was the discoverer of 'fixed air' (carbon dioxide), a correspondent of Antoine Laurent Lavoisier (1743-1794) and close friend of James Watt (1736-1819). Black's research gave way to his development of teaching at Edinburgh. He successfully used practical demonstrations during lectures and his class sizes exceeded 200. His successor had also been his student. Thomas Charles Hope (1866-1844) became fifth professor of Chemistry and Chemical Pharmacy in 1795. His lecturing skills led him to become the 'most popular teacher of chemistry in Britain'. Lecture attendances rose from 293 in 1799 to 559 in 1823. He kept his lectures up to date and was also the first to expound Lavoisier's ideas in Britain.

William Gregory (1803-1858) became sixth professor in 1844 amidst unprecedented competition for the post. This was the first time that the position was solely the Chair of Chemistry. During his term he published his textbook Outlines of Chemistry, (1845). His successor was one of the previously unsuccessful candidates (Sir) Lyon Playfair (1818-1898), who held the post until he was elected MP for the Universities of Edinburgh and St Andrews in 1869.

Alexander Crum Brown (1838-1922) succeeded to the post, shortly after the BSc and DSc degrees had been established. His major contribution to chemistry was the development of the graphical illustration of chemical formulae. During his term he was involved in the development of the Medical School building, into which department he moved. The period also saw the introduction of salaries and the appointment of lecturers. Crum Brown also became part of the newly created Faculty of Science in 1893 (although the chemistry chair remained within the Faculty of Medicine).

(Sir) James Walker (1863-1935), formerly private assistant to Crum Brown, was his successor. He found laboratory resources stretched but the outbreak of the First World War prevented any immediate resolution. The war saw Walker using graduates, students and staff in production of TNT. The immediate post-war period saw the transfer of chemistry to the Faculty of Science and the physical move to the new King's Buildings campus. The four year BSc degree in Chemistry was introduced in 1921 and a year later the degree in Technical Chemistry was introduced in conjunction with Heriot-Watt College. The latter to develop into the Department of Chemical Engineering by 1960.

Former Edinburgh graduate James Kendall (1889-1978) became tenth professor in 1928. This was a period of diverse research work. Lecturers included future Nobel Prize winner Heinrich Wieland (1877-1957) and (Sir) Edmund Langley Hirst (1898-1975) joined the department, appointed to the new Forbes Chair of Organic Chemistry. The department increasingly became a source of advice to government and industry and also saw its medical dimension moved to the Department of Biochemistry (initially the Department of Chemistry Relating to Medicine).

Hirst succeeded Kendall as head of department in 1959, with Tom L Cottrell (1923-1973) becoming eleventh chair. The latter was a former Edinburgh graduate who had done extensive research work within the industrial sector. These research skills were developed into 'a flourishing research school in physical chemistry' at Edinburgh. He published extensively and he set up the first British group to invesigate molecular beams.

The 1960s saw Charles Kemball (1923-:) become twelfth professor and the appointments of Elizabeth Ebsworth (1933-:) to the new Crum Brown Chair of Chemistry, and Neil Campbell (1903-:) to a Personal Chair of Chemistry. All gained large degrees of professional recognition for their research work and publications. In 1969, (Sir) John IG Cadogan (1930-:), amongst who's innovations was the introduction of Evironmental Chemistry to Edinburgh, was appointed to the Forbes Chair, a position he held for a decade during which time the department gained a £92,500 award to fund a Unit for High Speed Liquid Chromatography. John Knox (1927-:) was appointed to the position of director of the unit and to a Personal Chair in Physical Chemistry.

Robert Donovan (1941-:), internationally acclaimed for work on spectroscopy and photochemical studies, was appointed to a Personal Chair in Physical Chemistry in 1979 and took over as thirteenth professor in 1986. His research group secured the necessary funding to acquire for the department laser equipment which met the current highest international standards. Sufficient funding was also acquired to purchase a Nuclear Magetic Response (NMR) spectrometer. Grants were also obtained from the Science (and Engineering) Research Council for research and upgrading equipment.

In 1980 Alistair Ian Scott (1928-:) was appointed to the Forbes Chair and in 1984 Robert Ramage (1934-:) was appointed to the same. Ramage's interests in the field of antibiotics were reflected in developing work in biological sciences. A research grant of £119,000 was achieved from the Science and Engineering Research Council for collagen research and of £90,000 for the Vitamin Research Group. There was also support from the Wellcome Trust for work on DNA. In 1989 David WH Rankin (1945-:), already a research fellow within the department, was appointed to a Personal Chair in Structural Chemistry and devoloped the NMR Unit.


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