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UCL Culture Blog


News and musings from the UCL Culture team


The Fathers of Modern Japan

By Nick J Booth, on 14 August 2013

In May 1863, five young Japanese men were disguised as British Sailors and smuggled on board a ship that would take them on the first leg of their journey to Britain. At the time it was illegal for any Japanese person to leave the country. It took them 135 days to make the journey.

The five young men who made up the Choshu Five.

The five young men who made up the Choshu Five.
(Image Credit –  Glasgow University Museum)

Once they arrived in the UK the owner of the shipping line, Hugh Matheson, introduced them to Professor Alexander Williamson, who had been head of the Chemistry Department at UCL since 1855. Williamson and his wife took the five under their wing, inviting three of them to live with them. They apparently even moved to a bigger house to accommodate their guests.

Williamson isn’t very well known now, outside history of science circles, but perhaps he should be. He came up with the ‘Williamson Synthesis’, which showed that water has two Hydrogen atoms. Hence H2O, not HO as was previously thought.