Yesteryear Nobel Laureates - Sir William Ramsay
- Veena Patwardhan - Special Correspondent
This new feature - the second - tells you the story of the scientist Sir William Ramsay, who discovered the five new elements - the noble gases - on his life and times.
During his time, Sir William Ramsay was a sort of superstar in the chemistry world. For one, in just five years (from 1894 to 1898), he pulled off the incredible feat of discovering five new elements in quick succession! These were the noble gases - helium, neon, argon, krypton, and xenon. And secondly, since the newly discovered elements could not be fitted into the periodic table as it was structured at that time, his discoveries led to the addition of a new group to it - group 0.
These achievements won him international fame, and a few years later, in 1904, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry “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”.
William Ramsay was born in Glasgow, Scotland, on 2 October 1852. His family tree included scientists on both the maternal and paternal sides. His paternal grandfather was the founder of Glasgow’s Chemical Society, and his uncle, the well-known geologist Sir Andrew Ramsay. His maternal grandfather and many other relatives from his mother’s side had been physicians.
Two years younger than his classmates in school,
science. He was fond of dogs, and loved to travel and compose and play music. He was a linguist, having studied Latin and Greek at the University of Glasgow and picked up French and German too as a child, delving into the Bible in these languages at the Church his parents went to on Sundays.
Achievements as a pathbreaking chemist
William Ramsay started his academic career on returning to Scotland in 1872, progressing from an assistant in chemistry at the Anderson College in Glasgow to being appointed as the Chair of Inorganic Chemistry at University College London (UCL), in 1887, a post he held till his retirement in 1913.
Ramsay was an excellent university teacher, much loved and revered by his students who had affectionately nick-named him ‘The Chief’. His earliest biographer, Sir William A. Tilden had written that his students and colleagues alike found him to be “cheerful, inspiring, enthusiastic, full of ideas, and ready to give information or discuss any difficulty”.
At UCL, Ramsay had to deal with the peculiar practice of often having to deliver the same lecture thrice – to separate groups of male and female chemistry students, and medical students as well. A progressive academic, he suggested the integration of women students with the mainstream student groups. He also disapproved of examination results being taken as a means of evaluating university students, encouraging original research instead. Accordingly, he played a key role in re-organising the university and transforming it from being just an examining body into a full-fledged centre of learning.
Though his early work was in organic and physical chemistry, it was in inorganic chemistry, the field he chose to focus on from the mid-eighties onwards, that his famous discoveries of noble gases were made.
In April 1894, intrigued by the celebrated physicist Lord Rayleigh’s discovery that ‘nitrogen’ in air was around 0.5% denser than nitrogen sourced from nitrogen compounds, with Rayleigh’s permission, Ramsay too carried out experiments to unravel this intriguing dilemma. In the months that followed, the two scientists shared the results of their investigations with each other. On extracting oxygen, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen from a sample of air, Ramsay realised the remaining air contained another gas equivalent to one-eightieth of the original volume. He and Rayleigh then studied the gas using spectroscopy, and in 1895 published a joint paper about having discovered a new element that was chemically inert and which they had named argon, after the Greek word ‘argos’ meaning inactive or lazy.
Interestingly, some scientists, including the great Dmitri Mendeleev, creator of the periodic table, disagreed with their claim. Mendeleev asserted that what they had found was actually triatomic nitrogen, N3. But the solid evidence, including spectroscopic results, that Ramsay and Rayleigh provided to back their findings, convinced the scientific community about their discovery.
Realising that if there was one inert gas, then there ought to be more, perhaps even a whole group of such gases, Ramsay was eager to discover these as well. Thereafter, within just five years, he proved the existence of terrestrial helium, an element already detected in the sun’s chromosphere three decades earlier, and then discovered neon, xenon, and krypton as well.
Soon, Ramsay’s fame as an outstanding researcher made him a much sought-after consultant to industry. In addition to the Nobel Prize, he was also awarded several other scientific honours by many European countries. The University of Glasgow where he had studied and taught named The Ramsay Chair in Chemistry after him. UCL, where he had carried out almost all of his pathbreaking work, founded the Department of Chemical Engineering in his memory in 1923. The Sir William Ramsay School in Hazlemere, Ramsay grease used for lubricating joints of laboratory glassware (Ramsay was an expert glassblower), and the Ramsay and Shields equation are also named after him.
12 Arundel Gardens, Notting Hill, Ramsay’s family home for fifteen years and where he lived with his wife Margaret Buchanan and two children bears one of the famous Blue Plaques put up by English Heritage for celebrating the links between eminent men and women of the past and their places of residence. In a letter to an aunt soon after moving to this address, Ramsay wrote, “I go to town on a bicycle! Right along the Bayswater Road to Oxford, and to Gower Street. This morning I was at College in eighteen minutes from the house.”
The India connection
As a distinguished scientist, Ramsay was roped in as an adviser for the setting up of the Indian Institute of Science, planned as a tripartite venture between India’s well-known industrialist and philanthropist - Jamshetji N. Tata (who also founded the Tata Group), the then Government of India, and the Maharaja of Mysore. On a special invitation extended to him by
J. N. Tata, Ramsay made a long visit to India in 1900 along with his wife, during which he offered valuable advice for setting up the institute, currently one of India’s finest scientific institutions, even suggesting Bangalore as the most appropriate location.
Sir William Ramsay was among the first scientists to appreciate the possibility of radiotherapy, and therefore studied the “curative action of radioactive substances in malignant disease”. Sadly, he himself died of nasal cancer at the age of 63, possibly due to repeated exposure to radioactive substances. He died on 23 July 1916.
This illustrious scientist who took ‘keen pleasure’ in his research work and inspired scores of his students and other scientists to experience the delights of scientific research was finally laid to rest in his parish church, the Holy Trinity Church, at Hazlemere, Buckinghamshire.
1. MLA style: Sir William Ramsay – Biographical - Nobelprize. org, Nobel Media AB 2014, Web: https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/chemistry/laureates/1904/ramsay-bio.html
2. The University of Glasgow Story: Sir William Ramsay – University of Glasgow, Web: http://www.universitystory.gla.ac.uk/biography/?id=WH0044&type=P
3. Katherine D. Watson: Sir William Ramsay - Encyclopaedia Britannica
4. English Heritage: Ramsay, Sir William (1852 – 1916) - Web: http:// www. english- heritage. org. uk/ visit/ blue- plaques/ ramsay-sir-william-1852-1916
5. Jacqueline Banerjee: William Ramsay - The Victorian Web, September 2015
6. K. N. Smith: Scientists discovered helium during a total solar eclipse – Forbes.com, 18 August 2017
7. University College London: Sir William Ramsay – UCL, Chemical Engineering, Web: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/chemeng/about/ramsay.
Sir William Ramsay