Professor Sir William Ramsey, Glasgow born chemist, distinguished Victorian scientist, and discoverer of inert gases, was born on the 2nd of October, 1852.
Professor Sir William Ramsay was the Bunsen burner who invented Radox, proved that Aragorn was a gas, and that Kryptonite existed even if Superman didn’t. Not quite. In the 1880s, Ramsay was active in physical chemistry, with his many contributions being primarily on stoichiometry and thermodynamics. However, Ramsay’s greatest achievements – his most celebrated discoveries – were in inorganic chemistry during the 1890s, for which he won the Nobel Prize. He discovered a previously unknown class of what are variously known as inert, rare, or noble gases. Ramsay predicted that dense (as in heavy) gasses were invisible in the Earth's atmosphere. Then in 1894, he experimented to remove oxygen and nitrogen from the air, and in doing so discovered a previously unknown element, which he named ‘argon’. In 1895, while investigating for the presence of argon in a uranium-bearing mineral, he isolated and spectroscopically confirmed the existence of helium, which had first been observed only in the spectrum of the sun by Pierre Janssen, in 1868. Based on those two discoveries, Ramsay theorised that more unknown gases must exist and in 1898, he isolated neon, krypton and xenon from the earth's atmosphere. As a consequence, he was able to add a whole new group of elements to Mendeleev's periodic table. The benefit to society of these remarkable, inert elements comes, for example, from using helium instead of highly flammable hydrogen for lighter-than-air craft and the use of argon to conserve light bulbs filaments. A further consequence of Ramsay’s discovery of helium came from his work with Frederick Soddy in 1903, when they showed that the radioactive decay of radium produces helium, which laid the groundwork for the subsequent development of nuclear physics. Later, in 1910, he also isolated and characterized radon, not Radox.
Another of Ramsay’s claims to fame was that as somewhat of a scientific celebrity, he was cartooned by ‘Spy’ in ‘Vanity Fair’. He was also quite modest, but with a sense of humour as he ascribed his success in isolating those rare gases to his large flat thumb, which he used to close the end of eudiometer tubes full of mercury. In scientific circles, he became known for the inventiveness and scrupulousness of his experimental techniques. He was also famous for rolling his own cigarettes and claimed that machine-made cigarettes were “unworthy of an experimentalist”. One of his innovations was to encourage glassblowing and to prove it, there are some wonderfully Heath-Robinson diagrams in Morris Travers' biography of Ramsay. Unlike his distinguished countryman, James Clerk Maxwell, Ramsay had a flair for lecturing and he was a progressive university teacher who welcomed the integration of women students. Nicknamed ‘the Chief’ by his students, Ramsay was keen on the ‘continental Seminar’ and, interestingly, distrustful of examinations. His 1904 Nobel Prize for Chemistry came “in recognition of his services in the discovery of the inert gaseous elements in air, and his determination of their place in the periodic system.” Ramsay was also one of the first scientists to appreciate the possibility of radiotherapy and studied the “curative action of radioactive substances in malignant disease.”
William Ramsay, yet another eminent Scot and a nephew of the geologist, Sir Andrew Ramsay, was born in Glasgow on the 2nd of October, 1852. As he explained in his Nobel Lecture, his family had a strong in the sciences, his paternal grandfather was a “chemical manufacturer in Glasgow” and his maternal grandfather was a medical man who practised in Edinburgh and “was the author of a series of textbooks for medical students.” Hence, he added, “I inherited the taste for chemistry from my ancestors on both sides of the family.” Ramsay attended Glasgow Academy, before studying the classics, chemistry and physics at Glasgow University between 1866 and 1870. He became interested in chemistry on reading about the manufacture of gunpowder in a textbook and beginning in 1869, he worked for eighteen months as an apprentice for Glasgow City Analyst Robert Tatlock. Ramsay was a talented linguist and that certainly helped when he studied under Professor Rudolf Fittig in Germany, between 1870 and 1872. Focusing on organic chemistry, his thesis on the toluic and nitrotoluic acids gained him a Ph.D. from the Universität Tübingen, whilst not yet twenty. Back in Glasgow in 1872, Ramsay became Assistant to the Professor of Applied Chemistry at Anderson’s College (now the Royal Technical College), and two years later secured a similar position at the University.
In 1880, Ramsay was appointed Professor of Chemistry at the University College of Bristol, where in 1881, he became its Principle, while continuing his researches in organic chemistry and gases. By 1887, when he was appointed Professor of Inorganic Chemistry at University College London (UCL), he was already established as one of the foremost chemists of his day. He set up a private laboratory at UCL and held his post there until his retirement in 1913, when he became the University’s first Emeritus Professor. During his lifetime, in addition to being the first Briton to receive the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, in 1904, Ramsay won a host of awards and honorary degrees. He was knighted in 1902 and was also made a Knight of the Prussian order ‘Pour le mérite’, Commander of the Crown of Italy, and Officer of the Legion d'Honneur of France.
Ramsay was an academic to whom work was also the most fascinating of his many hobbies. Once in 1895, when on a holiday in Iceland with his literary colleague, Professor W. P. Ker, Ramsay begged a bottle from a woman, which he used to ‘capture’ some gas from a spring. Ker and the woman must have thought him crazy, but Ramsay did get some argon and on the same trip, he surreptitiously took samples of some rock near a mine, “lest perchance it might contain helium.”
Possibly as a result of his exposure to radioactive substances, Professor Sir William Ramsey died from nasal cancer at High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, on the 23rd of July, 1916, and was buried at Hazelmere Parish church. Amongst many memorials to Ramsay, there is a plaque in Westminster Abbey, a Ramsay Memorial Fellowship at University College, and a plaque to commemorate the site of his laboratory, which is now occupied by the Slade School of Art.