The Noble Art of Chemistry

Sir William Ramsay

by Niamh Wood. Sir William Ramsay was a Scottish chemist who discovered helium, neon, argon, krypton, and xenon, an entire family of new elements known as noble gases.

William Ramsay was born on October 2nd, 1852, Glasgow, Scotland. He was the only child of parents William Ramsay (senior) and Catherine Robertson. Ramsay knew since he was young that he wanted to become a chemist. In 1866 he studied at the University of Glasgow. He got his degree and left university in 1870. From here, Ramsay decided to move to Germany and became a doctoral student under the German chemist Rudolf Fittig at the University of Tubingen. While working there, he made a thesis on orthotoluic acid and its derivatives which subsequently earned him the degree of Doctor of Philosophy.

After graduating from Tubingen, Ramsay returned to Glasgow in 1872. From here he began working as an assistant in chemistry at the Anderson College in Glasgow. Just two years later he managed to secure a similar position at the University of Glasgow. During his time there, Ramsay focused mainly on researching alkaloids (complex chemical compounds derived from plants). However, in 1879, he concentrated more on physical chemistry studying the molecular volumes of elements at their boiling points in 1880 Ramsey was selected to be Principal and Professor of Chemistry at University College Bristol. Whilst working here, he carried on this research with the help of British Chemist Sydney Young. Collectively, the two men managed to publish more than 30 papers on the physical characteristics of liquids and vapours. Ramsey was later elected the Chair of Inorganic Chemistry at University College London in 1887. He held this position until his retirement in 1913.

In 1892, a chemist named Lord Rayleigh showed that the atomic weight of nitrogen found in chemical compounds was lower than that of nitrogen found in the atmosphere. He and Ramsey began working on why this was the case. By just comparing their finding with each other, Ramsay and Lord Rayleigh proved that a previously unknown gas in the atmosphere must exist. In 1894, Ramsay and Rayleigh, at a meeting with the British Association, announced the discovery of Argon and showed evidence that it constituted nearly one percent of the atmosphere. The following year, Ramsay discovered another gas from a mineral called cleveite. The gas found was Helium, which was previously only known to be in the solar spectrum. In his book, ‘The Gases of the Atmosphere (1896), Ramsey, guided by theoretical considerations founded on Mendeleev's periodic system, was able to methodically seek out missing gaps in the table. These gaps suggested that at least three more noble gases could exist. In 1989, Ramsay, along with Morris T. Watson, a British chemist, was able to find and isolate the three missing gases. These were Neon, Krypton, and Xenon. In 1903, working with Frederick Soddy, a British chemist, he also discovered that helium was in the emanations of radium. This discovery was of crucial importance to the modern understanding of nuclear reactions. In 1910, Ramsay proved that radon was the sixth noble gas. This marked Ramsay’s last notable scientific contribution.

Ramsay was fascinated by the new science of radiochemistry and made many endeavours to explore these phenomenon’s, however, these proved unsuccessful. Nevertheless, Ramsey was since then, been awarded many prizes and honours due to his scientific work. Some of his most notable include the Nobel Prize, Davy and Longstaff Medals, an honorary doctorate of Dublin medal, and the Barnardo medal. Ramsey was also chosen to become a fellow of the Royal Society in 1888 and was knighted in 1902. He also became the first person to write textbooks based on the periodic classification of elements.

In his personal life, Ramsay married Margaret, the daughter of George Stevenson Buchanan, Scottish historian, and humanist scholar, in 1881. They had one son and one daughter together. Following his retirement in 1913, Ramsay, along with his family, moved to Buckinghamshire and he continued to work in a private laboratory at his home up until he passed away from cancer. Sir William Ramsay died in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, on July 23rd, 1916.


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