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William Ramsay

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William Ramsay

Sir William Ramsay
Born (1852-10-02)2 October 1852
Glasgow, Scotland
Died 23 July 1916(1916-07-23) (aged 63)
High Wycombe, Bucks., England
Nationality Scottish
Fields Chemistry
Institutions University of Glasgow (1874-80)
University College, Bristol (1880–87)
University College London (1887–1913)
Alma mater University of Glasgow (1866-9)
Anderson's Institution, Glasgow (1869)[1]
University of Tübingen (PhD 1873)
Doctoral advisor Wilhelm Rudolph Fittig
Doctoral students Edward Charles Cyril Baly
James Johnston Dobbie
Jaroslav Heyrovský
Otto Hahn
Known for Noble gases
Notable awards Leconte Prize (1895)
Barnard Medal for Meritorious Service to Science (1895)
Davy Medal (1895)
Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1904)
Elliott Cresson Medal (1913)
Vanity Fair caricature of William Ramsay by Leslie Ward

Sir William Ramsay KCB FRS FRSE (1852–1916) was a Scottish chemist who discovered the noble gases and received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1904 "in recognition of his services in the discovery of the inert gaseous elements in air" (along with his collaborator, Lord Rayleigh, who received the Nobel Prize in Physics that same year for their discovery of argon). After the two men identified argon, Ramsay investigated other atmospheric gases. His work in isolating argon, helium, neon, krypton and xenon led to the development of a new section of the periodic table.[2]

Biography of his life

Early years

Ramsay was born in Glasgow on 2 October 1852, the son of civil engineer William Ramsay and Catherine, née Robertson.[3] He was a nephew of the geologist Sir Andrew Ramsay.

He attended the Glasgow Academy and then continued his education at the University of Glasgow with Thomas Anderson and then went to study in Germany at the University of Tübingen with Wilhelm Rudolph Fittig where his doctoral thesis was entitled Investigations in the Toluic and Nitrotoluic Acids.

Ramsay went back to Glasgow as Anderson's assistant at the organic chemistry and on gases.


William Ramsay's Nobel Prize certificate
Blue Plaque at 12 Arundel Gardens commemorating the work of William Ramsay.

In 1887 he succeeded Alexander Williamson to be the chair of Chemistry at University College London (UCL). It was here at UCL that his most celebrated discoveries were made. As early as 1885–1890 he published several notable papers on the oxides of nitrogen, developing the skills that he would need for his subsequent work.

On the evening of 19 April 1894 Ramsay attended a lecture given by Lord Rayleigh. Rayleigh had noticed a discrepancy between the density of nitrogen made by chemical synthesis and nitrogen isolated from the air by removal of the other known components. After a short discussion he and Ramsay decided to follow this up. By August, Ramsay could write to Rayleigh to announce that he had isolated a heavy component of air, previously unknown, which did not appear to have any obvious chemical reactivity. He named the gas, which is inert, with the Greek word for "lazy", "argon".[2] In the following years, working with Morris Travers, he discovered neon, krypton, and xenon. He also isolated helium which had been observed in the spectrum of the sun but had not been found on earth. In 1910 he also made and characterized radon.[4]

In 1904 Ramsay received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Ramsay's high standing in scientific circles led to him being an adviser in the setting up the Indian Institute of Science. He suggested Bangalore as the most appropriate location for the institute.

Ramsay’s high standing in scientific circles led to his unfortunate endorsement in 1905 of the Industrial and Engineering Trust Ltd., a corporation with a supposed secret process to extract gold from seawater. The corporation bought property along the English coast to implement the gold-from-seawater process, but the company quickly faded from public view, and never produced any gold.

Ramsay was the president of the British Association in 1911–1912.[5]

Personal life

Ramsay was married to Margaret Johnstone Marshall (née Buchanan, daughter of George Stenenson Buchanan) and had a daughter, Catherine Elizabeth (Elska) and a son, William George, who died at 40.

Ramsay lived in Hazlemere, Buckinghamshire until his death. He died in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, on 23 July 1916 from nasal cancer at the age of 63 and was buried in Hazlemere Parish church.

A blue plaque at number 12 Arundel Gardens, Notting Hill, commemorates his life and work.

The Sir William Ramsay School in Hazlemere is named after him.


  1. ^ Thorburn Burns, D. (2011). "Robert Rattray Tatlock (1837-1934), Public Analyst for Glasgow". Journal of the Association of Public Analysts 39: 38–43. Retrieved 25 November 2011. 
  2. ^ a b Wood, Margaret E. (2010). "A Tale of Two Knights". Chemical Heritage 28 (1). Retrieved 7 April 2014. 
  3. ^ Waterston, Charles D; Macmillan Shearer, A (July 2006). Former Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1783-2002: Biographical Index II. Edinburgh:  
  4. ^ W. Ramsay and R. W. Gray (1910). "La densité de l’emanation du radium". C.R. Hebd. Séances Acad. Sci. 151: 126–128. 
  5. ^ Presidential Address to the British Association Meeting, held at Portsmouth in 1911

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