(GU Crest)
Chemistry Department: Glasgow University

Historical Background



Apologies.....

History is still in the making... ...but here's some to be going on with:

1997 was the 250th anniversary of Chemistry in Glasgow.

Historical note: In 1747, just one year after the Battle of Culloden, the University found itself with a surplus of 30 saved from the salary of a new Professor of Oriental Languages who had yet to take up his appointment. William Cullen , later to become Professor of Medicine in the University, had been pressing Faculty and Senate for funds to equip a laboratory for the teaching of Chemistry as part of his reorganisation of the Medical Faculty. He was granted this sum, together with a further 22 later that year, and the first lectureship in chemistry was established. It appears that his lectures and practical demonstrations were very popular, though he was later to complain "...that he had expended a much greater sum himself in purchasing cucurbits, boltheads and a great many other instruments..." (Senate minutes, June 1749).

Cullen was succeeded in 1756 by his pupil, Joseph Black , already famous for his Edinburgh thesis on Magnesia Alba. In 1762 Black announced from Glasgow his doctrine of Latent Heat. One interested person was the youthful James Watt who first measured, in the Department, the latent heat of steam. Chemistry at Glasgow thus played a notable role in the Industrial Revolution. Black's pupil, Charles Hope, gave in 1787 the first Chemistry course in a British university based on the revolutionary ideas of Lavoisier, whose laboratory he had attended in Paris.

The Chemistry lectureship was enlarged to a Regius chair in 1819. The first professor, Thomas Thomson, a staunch supporter of Dalton's new atomic theory, set up the first University course in practical chemistry for undergraduates and built the once famous Shuttle Street laboratory off High Street in Glasgow in 1831. His "History of Chemistry" (1831) enhanced greatly the status of chemistry as a profession.

At this time the Scottish Universities, particularly Glasgow and Edinburgh, provided a high proportion of the leading chemists in the UK and the Empire. The Chemical Society, founded in 1841, chose Glasgow graduate Thomas Graham as its first president. Since then many other Glasgow graduates have held this position and have thus headed the profession. Two, Sir William Ramsay and Lord Todd, have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and two of our former staff, Frederick Soddy and Sir Derek Barton, have also gained this supreme award.

The Department has consistently contributed to the advancement of chemical knowledge. For example, the elements strontium (Hope, 1792) and protactinium (Soddy and Cranston, 1918) were discovered by research conducted largely at Glasgow. Soddy published in Nature his hypothesis of the isotope and gave a clear definition of atomic number. In 1853 Henry How (assistant to Thomas Anderson) conceived the idea of functional group modification in natural products and thereby "... unwittingly set in motion a sequence of events which ultimately transformed the process of drug discovery" (Walter Sneader, Drug Discovery: the evolution of modern medicines, Wiley, 1985). J. M. Robertson (Gardiner Professor, 1942-70) developed heavy-atom and isomorphous-replacement techniques upon which so much of modern X-ray crystallography depends, including the recent (1995) determination here of the structure of the light harvesting protein complex.

The Department as we know it began to take shape about 1900 when sections of organic and physical chemistry (Gardiner chair) were added. Theoretical chemistry was formally introduced in 1962 and the (Ramsay) chair in inorganic chemistry was instituted in 1968. The Joseph Black chair in Protein Crystallography was added in 1989.

Brief historical details of the University and information on the 2001 celebrations may be found here.

Some (chemistry) milestones...

1745: Jacobite rebellion

1746: Battle of Culloden

1747: Chemistry lectures and laboratory established in the University of Glasgow

1747-55: William Cullen - first lecturer in Chemistry (1747) and Professor of Medicine (1751)

1756-66: Joseph Black

1769-87: William Irvine M.D. (Lecturer in Chemistry)

1853: Henry How (assistant to Thomas Anderson) conceived the idea of functional group modification in natural products (making the quaternary ammonium salt of morphine) and thereby "... unwittingly set in motion a sequence of events which ultimately transformed the process of drug discovery" (Walter Sneader, Drug Discovery: the evolution of modern medicines, Wiley, 1985).

1904-14: Frederick Soddy (1877-1956). Lecturer in Physical Chemistry, during which time he did the work for which he was awarded (together with Ernest Rutherford) the 1921 Nobel Prize in Chemistry "for his contributions to our knowledge of the chemistry of radioactive substances, and his investigations into the origin and nature of isotopes".

1942-70: J. Monteith Robertson (1900-1989). Gardiner Professor of Chemistry, pioneer in the field of X-ray crystallography and the founder of organic crystallography. Developed heavy-atom and isomorphous-replacement methods.

1995: Structure determination of the light harvesting protein [McDermott G., Prince S.M., Freer A.A., Hawthornthwaite-Lawless A.M., Papiz M.Z., Cogdell R.J., Isaacs N.W. Nature 374. 517-521 (1995)]


(GU Crest) Return to Home Page .