The History of the Chemistry Department – CPS Lecture 8

By Penny Carmichael, on 21 January 2013

-Article by Abigail Mountain

Firstly, I think this is an opportune moment to wish everyone a happy new year! Hopefully the chocolate oranges have been forgotten and ground-breaking research is well under way.

We had rather a special first lecture of our second session. The legend that is Professor Alwyn Davies spoke about the history of our very own department – he should know it out of anyone, he’s been at UCL since 1944! Many of us who are/were undergraduates here will remember his lecture about William Ramsay’s discovery of the noble gases from our first year, so it was a pleasure to hear from him once again.

Of course, I can’t just recount the whole lecture here. That would be too much like reading a history student’s class notes. Instead I’ll briefly re-live some of the key points and giggle-worthy anecdotes.

Well we wouldn’t have a chemistry department without a university. This is where Jeremy Bentham rears his stolen head. UCL, founded in 1826, was the first university to accept students irrespective of their religion, or lack thereof. This is how we gained the nickname “that godless college in Gower Street” from our best friends down at King’s. We were also the first college in England to have a chemistry department, as well as others such as zoology and geology.

Our first Professor was Edward Turner and during his time there were no laboratories for undergraduates. This may sound appealing to some first and second years right about now but his examination papers could put you off. His first had 35 questions, from which you had to get two thirds of 1100 marks, set over 6 hours. Ours don’t seem so bad now… The questions were pretty peculiar too, for example “What is the taste of white arsenic?” (I can think of maybe one professor from our current department who would ask such a question nowadays, but otherwise, a little bizarre!)

Following Turner was Thomas Graham in in 1836, who set up the first undergraduate laboratories with help from George Birkbeck. There were still only male students at this time, it wasn’t until the 1860’s that females could study at UCL, and even then the sexes were kept separate by lectures for men and women on and half past the hour, respectively.  Then Williamson, of our favourite ether synthesis fame, took over, who in turn was succeeded by the Nobel laureate Sir William Ramsay. He of course won the Nobel prize in 1904 for his discovery of the noble gases, original samples of which Alwyn masterfully lit up with a discharge. We also got the see duplicates of the medal itself (the real gold ones were melted down by Ramsay and their proceeds given to charity) which were far bigger and impressive than expected.

The next famous name on the list of heads of departments is Sir Christopher Ingold. Not only did he have our beautiful (?!) department named after him – it did come second in the London Borough of Camden “Best Builiding of 1970” list – he also put forward the electronic theory of organic chemistry. These are the principles we now learn even as early as at A-level. The idea that reactions involve the transfer of electrons as well as the pushing of those little arrows around a conjugated system all stemmed from Ingold. Everyday vocabulary such as mesomeric effect, SN1, SN2, E1 and E2 all came from him too. Without any of these concepts organic chemistry would be even more of a nightmare (no bias here, I swear).

Professor Davies captured and held the attention of a very good turnout with his enthusiasm and spirit. He raised the question of will we see another famous head of department? One problem may be due to the length of time the more recent heads have acted for. 6 or 7 years compared with tens must surely make a difference. Also, in times gone by the head would have put most of the departments effort and money into his own research whereas today we see a much wider spread. Either way, Prof Parkin won’t let us forget about Pilkington TM, that’s for sure.