William Ramsay

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William Ramsay

William Ramsay.jpg
Born(1852-10-02)2 October 1852
Glasgow, Scotland
Died23 July 1916(1916-07-23) (aged 63)
High Wycombe, England
Alma materUniversity of Glasgow (1866–69)
Anderson's University,now University of Strathclyde Glasgow (1869) [1]
University of Tübingen (PhD 1873)
Known forDiscovering noble gases
Awards Leconte Prize (1895)
Barnard Medal for Meritorious Service to Science (1895)
Davy Medal (1895)
Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1904)
Matteucci Medal (1907)
Elliott Cresson Medal (1913)
Scientific career
Fields Chemistry
Institutions University of Glasgow (1874–80)
University College, Bristol (1880–87)
University College London (1887–1913)
Doctoral advisor Wilhelm Rudolph Fittig
Doctoral studentsEdward Charles Cyril Baly
James Johnston Dobbie
Jaroslav Heyrovský
Influenced Otto Hahn

Sir William Ramsay KCB FRS FRSE ( /ˈræmzi/ ; 2 October 1852 – 23 July 1916) was a Scottish chemist who discovered the noble gases and received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1904 "in recognition of his services in the discovery of the inert gaseous elements in air" along with his collaborator, John William Strutt, 3rd Baron Rayleigh, who received the Nobel Prize in Physics that same year for their discovery of argon. After the two men identified argon, Ramsay investigated other atmospheric gases. His work in isolating argon, helium, neon, krypton and xenon led to the development of a new section of the periodic table. [2] [3]


Early years

Ramsay was born at 2 Clifton Street [4] in Glasgow on 2 October 1852, the son of civil engineer and surveyor, William C. Ramsay, and his wife, Catherine Robertson. [5] The family lived at 2 Clifton Street in the city centre, a three-storey and basement Georgian townhouse. [4] The family moved to 1 Oakvale Place in the Hillhead district in his youth. [6] He was a nephew of the geologist Sir Andrew Ramsay.

He was educated at Glasgow Academy and then apprenticed to Robert Napier, shipbuilder in Govan. [7] However, he instead decided to study Chemistry at the University of Glasgow, matriculating in 1866 and graduating 1869. He then undertook practical training with the chemist Thomas Anderson and then went to study in Germany at the University of Tübingen with Wilhelm Rudolph Fittig where his doctoral thesis was entitled Investigations in the Toluic and Nitrotoluic Acids. [8] [9] [10]

Ramsay went back to Glasgow as Anderson's assistant at the Anderson College. He was appointed as Professor of Chemistry at the University College of Bristol in 1879 and married Margaret Buchanan in 1881. In the same year he became the Principal of University College, Bristol, and somehow managed to combine that with active research both in organic chemistry and on gases.


William Ramsay's Nobel Prize certificate William Ramsay's Nobel Prize.jpg
William Ramsay's Nobel Prize certificate
Blue plaque at 12 Arundel Gardens commemorating the work of William Ramsay WilliamRamsay BluePlaque.jpg
Blue plaque at 12 Arundel Gardens commemorating the work of William Ramsay

In 1887 he succeeded Alexander Williamson as the chair of Chemistry at University College London (UCL). It was here at UCL that his most celebrated discoveries were made. As early as 1885–1890 he published several notable papers on the oxides of nitrogen, developing the skills that he needed for his subsequent work.

On the evening of 19 April 1894 Ramsay attended a lecture given by Lord Rayleigh. Rayleigh had noticed a discrepancy between the density of nitrogen made by chemical synthesis and nitrogen isolated from the air by removal of the other known components. After a short conversation he and Ramsay decided to investigate this. In August Ramsay told Rayleigh he had isolated a new, heavy component of air, which did not appear to have any chemical reactivity. He named this inert gas "argon", from the Greek word meaning "lazy". [2] In the following years, working with Morris Travers, he discovered neon, krypton, and xenon. He also isolated helium, which had only been observed in the spectrum of the sun, and had not previously been found on earth. In 1910 he isolated and characterised radon. [11]

During 1893–1902 Ramsay collaborated with Emily Aston, a British chemist, in experiments on mineral analysis and atomic weight determination. Their work included publications on the molecular surface energies of mixtures of non-associating liquids. [12]

He was appointed a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath (KCB) in the 1902 Coronation Honours list published on 26 June 1902, [13] [14] and invested as such by King Edward VII at Buckingham Palace on 24 October 1902. [15]

In 1904 Ramsay received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Ramsay's standing among scientists led him to become an adviser to the Indian Institute of Science. He suggested Bangalore as the location for the institute.

Ramsay endorsed the Industrial and Engineering Trust Ltd., a company that claimed it could extract gold from seawater, in 1905. It bought property on the English coast to begin its secret process. The company never produced any gold.

Ramsay was the president of the British Association in 1911–1912. [16]

Personal life

In 1881 Ramsay was married to Margaret Johnstone Marshall (née Buchanan), daughter of George Stevenson Buchanan. They had a daughter, Catherine Elizabeth (Elska) and a son, William George, who died at 40.

Ramsay lived in Hazlemere, Buckinghamshire, until his death. He died in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, on 23 July 1916 from nasal cancer at the age of 63 and was buried in Hazlemere parish church.


A blue plaque at number 12 Arundel Gardens, Notting Hill, commemorates his life and work.

The Sir William Ramsay School in Hazlemere and Ramsay grease are named after him.

There is a memorial to him by Charles Hartwell in the north aisle of the choir at Westminster Abbey. [17]

In 1923, University College London named its new Chemical Engineering department and seat after Ramsay, which had been funded by the Ramsay Memorial Fund. [18] One of Ramsay's former graduates, H. E. Watson was the third Ramsay professor of chemical engineering.

On 2 October 2019, Google celebrated his 167th birthday with a Google Doodle. [19]

See also

Related Research Articles

Argon Chemical element, symbol Ar and atomic number 18

Argon is a chemical element with the symbol Ar and atomic number 18. It is in group 18 of the periodic table and is a noble gas. Argon is the third-most abundant gas in the Earth's atmosphere, at 0.934%. It is more than twice as abundant as water vapor, 23 times as abundant as carbon dioxide, and more than 500 times as abundant as neon. Argon is the most abundant noble gas in Earth's crust, comprising 0.00015% of the crust.

John William Strutt, 3rd Baron Rayleigh English physicist

John William Strutt, 3rd Baron Rayleigh,, was a British scientist who made extensive contributions to both theoretical and experimental physics. He spent all of his academic career at the University of Cambridge. Among many honors, he received the 1904 Nobel Prize in Physics "for his investigations of the densities of the most important gases and for his discovery of argon in connection with these studies." He served as President of the Royal Society from 1905 to 1908 and as Chancellor of the University of Cambridge from 1908 to 1919.

Noble gas A group of low-reactive, gaseous chemical elements

The noble gases make up a class of chemical elements with similar properties; under standard conditions, they are all odorless, colorless, monatomic gases with very low chemical reactivity. The six naturally occurring noble gases are helium (He), neon (Ne), argon (Ar), krypton (Kr), xenon (Xe), and the radioactive radon (Rn). Oganesson (Og) is variously predicted to be a noble gas as well or to break the trend due to relativistic effects; its chemistry has not yet been investigated.

Neon Chemical element, symbol Ne and atomic number 10

Neon is a chemical element with the symbol Ne and atomic number 10. It is a noble gas. Neon is a colorless, odorless, inert monatomic gas under standard conditions, with about two-thirds the density of air. It was discovered in 1898 as one of the three residual rare inert elements remaining in dry air, after nitrogen, oxygen, argon and carbon dioxide were removed. Neon was the second of these three rare gases to be discovered and was immediately recognized as a new element from its bright red emission spectrum. The name neon is derived from the Greek word, νέον, neuter singular form of νέος (neos), meaning new. Neon is chemically inert, and no uncharged neon compounds are known. The compounds of neon currently known include ionic molecules, molecules held together by van der Waals forces and clathrates.

William Crookes British chemist and physicist (1832–1919)

Sir William Crookes was a British chemist and physicist who attended the Royal College of Chemistry in London, and worked on spectroscopy. He was a pioneer of vacuum tubes, inventing the Crookes tube which was made in 1875. This was a foundational discovery that eventually changed the whole of chemistry and physics.

James Dewar Scottish chemist and physicist

Sir James Dewar was a British chemist and physicist. He is best known for his invention of the vacuum flask, which he used in conjunction with research into the liquefaction of gases. He also studied atomic and molecular spectroscopy, working in these fields for more than 25 years.

Robert H. Whytlaw-Gray, FRS was an English chemist, born in London. He studied at the University of Glasgow and University College London and was Professor of Chemistry at the University of Leeds. He and William Ramsay isolated radon and studied its physical properties.

Royal Institution Organisation for scientific research and education based in Westminster, UK

The Royal Institution of Great Britain is an organisation for scientific education and research, based in the City of Westminster. It was founded in 1799 by the leading British scientists of the age, including Henry Cavendish and its first president, George Finch. Its foundational principles were diffusing the knowledge of, and facilitating the general introduction of, useful mechanical inventions and improvements, as well as enhancing the application of science to the common purposes of life.

Noble gas compounds are chemical compounds that include an element from the noble gases, group 18 of the periodic table. Although the noble gases are generally unreactive elements, many such compounds have been observed, particularly involving the element xenon. From the standpoint of chemistry, the noble gases may be divided into two groups: the relatively reactive krypton, xenon (12.1 eV), and radon (10.7 eV) on one side, and the very unreactive argon (15.8 eV), neon (21.6 eV), and helium (24.6 eV) on the other. Consistent with this classification, Kr, Xe, and Rn form compounds that can be isolated in bulk at or near standard temperature and pressure, whereas He, Ne, Ar have been observed to form true chemical bonds using spectroscopic techniques, but only when frozen into a noble gas matrix at temperatures of 40 K or lower, in supersonic jets of noble gas, or under extremely high pressures with metals.

Joseph Black

Joseph Black was a Scottish physicist and chemist, known for his discoveries of magnesium, latent heat, specific heat, and carbon dioxide. He was Professor of Anatomy and Chemistry at the University of Glasgow for 10 years from 1756, and then Professor of Medicine and Chemistry at the University of Edinburgh from 1766, teaching and lecturing there for more than 30 years.

History of the periodic table History of the periodic table of the elements

The periodic table is an arrangement of the chemical elements, structured by their atomic number, electron configuration and recurring chemical properties. In the basic form, elements are presented in order of increasing atomic number, in the reading sequence. Then, rows and columns are created by starting new rows and inserting blank cells, so that rows (periods) and columns (groups) show elements with recurring properties. For example, all elements in group (column) 18 are noble gases that hardly have a chemical reaction.

Morris Travers

Morris William Travers, FRS was an English chemist who worked with Sir William Ramsay in the discovery of xenon, neon and krypton. His work on several of the rare gases earned him the name Rare gas Travers in scientific circles. He was the founding director of the Indian Institute of Science.

History of chemistry Historical development of chemistry

The history of chemistry represents a time span from ancient history to the present. By 1000 BC, civilizations used technologies that would eventually form the basis of the various branches of chemistry. Examples include the discovery of fire, extracting metals from ores, making pottery and glazes, fermenting beer and wine, extracting chemicals from plants for medicine and perfume, rendering fat into soap, making glass, and making alloys like bronze.

Air sensitivity is a term used, particularly in chemistry, to denote the reactivity of chemical compounds with some constituent of air. Most often, reactions occur with atmospheric oxygen (O2) or water vapor (H2O), although reactions with the other constituents of air such as carbon monoxide (CO), carbon dioxide (CO2), and nitrogen (N2) are also possible.

Sir James Johnston Dobbie, FRS FRSE FIC FCS was known for the isolation, chemical structure, and physical properties of alkaloids. He isolated hydroxycodeine from opium and synthesized diphenylene. He carried out UV-VIS spectra of gaseous main group elements and organic compounds.

Events from the year 1904 in the United Kingdom.

In chemistry, the term chemically inert is used to describe a substance that is not chemically reactive. From a thermodynamic perspective, a substance is inert, or nonlabile, if it is thermodynamically unstable yet decomposes at a slow, or negligible rate.

William Francis Hillebrand

William Francis Hillebrand was an American chemist.

The UCL Faculty of Engineering Sciences is one of the 11 constituent faculties of University College London (UCL). The Faculty, the UCL Faculty of Mathematical and Physical Sciences and the UCL Faculty of the Built Envirornment together form the UCL School of the Built Environment, Engineering and Mathematical and Physical Sciences.

Herbert Edmeston Watson was a Ramsay professor of chemical engineering at University College London and the inventor of the low voltage neon glow lamp.


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  2. 1 2 Wood, Margaret E. (2010). "A Tale of Two Knights". Chemical Heritage Magazine. 28 (1). Retrieved 22 March 2018.
  3. "Sir William Ramsay's 167th birthday". Newsd www.newsd.in. Retrieved 2 October 2019.
  4. 1 2 Glasgow Post Office Directory 1852
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  6. Glasgow Post Office Directory 1860
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  10. "Ramsay Papers". Jisc Archive Hub. University College London Archives. Retrieved 2 October 2019.
  11. W. Ramsay and R. W. Gray (1910). "La densité de l'emanation du radium". C. R. Acad. Sci. Paris. 151: 126–128.
  12. Creese, M. R. S. (1998). Ladies in the Laboratory? American and British Women in Science, 1800–1900: A survey of their contributions to research. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow. p. 265.
  13. "The Coronation Honours". The Times (36804). London. 26 June 1902. p. 5.
  14. "No. 27453". The London Gazette . 11 July 1902. p. 4441.
  15. "Court Circular". The Times (36908). London. 25 October 1902. p. 8.
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  17. 'The Abbey Scientists' Hall, A.R. p63: London; Roger & Robert Nicholson; 1966
  18. " History – UCL Chemical Engineering has a long and distinguished history as a world-leading research department – the first of its kind in the UK. Find out more about some key figures and dates in our history". UCL. Retrieved 17 April 2021.
  19. "Sir William Ramsay's 167th Birthday". Google. 2 October 2019.
Secondary sources