Sir William Ramsay

The British chemist and educator Sir William Ramsay (1852-1916) discovered the rare gases and did important work in thermodynamics.

William Ramsay was born at Queen's Crescent, Glasgow, on Oct. 2, 1852. Both his father, a civil engineer, William Ramsay, and his mother, Catharine Robertson Ramsay, came from families noted for scientific attainment. Ramsay studied the classics, mathematics, and literature at the University of Glasgow (1866-1869) and then entered Robert Tatlock's laboratory while attending scientific lectures at the university. In 1870 he joined Robert Bunsen at Heidelberg, but he left there in 1871 to work with Rudolf Fittig at Tübingen, where he received the doctorate in 1872. On his return to Glasgow he became an assistant at Anderson's College and later an assistant in the department of chemistry at the University of Glasgow. University College, Bristol, appointed him professor of chemistry in 1880 and principal in 1881. In 1887 he succeeded Alexander W. Williamson to the chair of general chemistry at University College, London. He retired in 1912 to Hazelwood, in Buckinghamshire, where he also built a small laboratory. He had been made a fellow of the Royal Society in 1888; in 1902 he was knighted; and in 1904 he received the Nobel Prize. He died on July 23, 1916.

While Ramsay was at Glasgow, he worked as an organic chemist, synthesizing pyridine in 1877, and showing how close the relationship was between this compound and the alkaloids quinine and cinchonine. At Bristol he worked primarily as a physical chemist and, with his assistant, demonstrated the complexity of the molecular structure of pure liquids by studying the variation in their molecular surface energy with temperature. In London, Ramsay gradually shifted his attention to making very accurate determinations of the density of gases. He noted the small difference between the density of atmospheric nitrogen and that of "chemically pure" nitrogen. Together with Lord Rayleigh he discovered in 1894 a new element, christened "argon" because of its apparent chemical inertness; they announced their discovery in early 1895. Subsequently Ramsay was able to show that the gas given off when the mineral clevite was heated had a spectrum identical with that of helium.

Ramsay, now convinced that there was an entire group of elements missing from the periodic table, embarked upon a diligent search for them. In 1898, with the assistance of M. W. Travers, by careful fractional distillation of liquid air, Ramsay found three other elements: neon, krypton, and xenon. In 1903 he and Frederick Soddy announced the isolation of the final member of the series, radon, which they called "radium emanation." Ramsay also showed that the disintegration of radium proceeds with the emission of charged helium nuclei—alpha particles. For a while he believed that he had produced transmutations of copper to lithium and of thorium to carbon by exposing those materials to the products of radium disintegration. These claims were shown to be mistaken but were, nonetheless, important, for they suggested that the energy and particles from natural nuclear disintegrations might possibly be used to effect changes in more stable nuclei.


Further Reading on Sir William Ramsay

The chief sources of biographical information on Ramsay are Sir William A. Tilden, Sir William Ramsay … Memorials of His Life and Work (1918); and Morris William Travers, William Ramsay and University College London, 1852-1952 (1952) and A Life of Sir William Ramsay (1956).