Yes­ter­year No­bel Lau­re­ates - Sir Wil­liam Ram­say

- Veena Pat­ward­han - Spe­cial Correspondent

Chemical Industry Digest - - What’s In? - 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”.

Early life

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:­bel­­bel_prizes/chem­istry/lau­re­ates/1904/ram­say-bio.html

2. The Univer­sity of Glas­gow Story: Sir Wil­liam Ram­say – Univer­sity of Glas­gow, Web: http://www.uni­ver­si­tys­­og­ra­phy/?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 –, 18 Au­gust 2017

7. Univer­sity Col­lege Lon­don: Sir Wil­liam Ram­say – UCL, Chem­i­cal Engi­neer­ing, Web:­say.

Sir Wil­liam Ram­say

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