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UCL Culture Blog


News and musings from the UCL Culture team


Ramsay and the Nobel Discovery

By Nick J Booth, on 25 October 2013

Sir William Ramsay's Nobel Prize Medal

Sir William Ramsay’s Nobel Prize Medal.
UCL Chemistry Collection.

Sir William Ramsay was arguably one of the most famous scientists of his day. Between 1894 and 1898 he discovered five new elements – helium, neon, argon, krypton, and xenon; commonly known today as the noble gases. Not only was this impressive in itself, but these new elements did not fit onto the periodic table as it existed at that time. This led to Ramsay adding a whole new group to the periodic table. In 1904 the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences chose to award Ramsay the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, for his discovery of the noble gases. He was the first British person to win this prize.

2013 marks 100 years since the retirement of Sir William Ramsay from his post as Head of Chemistry at UCL. To mark this UCL Chemistry Collection will be taking part in a very special pop-up exhibition in the Rock Room, UCL’s Geology Museum.

Between 12.30 – 3pm on November 1st a range of objects relating to Ramsay and his work will be on display. I have picked out a few of my personal favourites…


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.