Place: United States of America
Subject: biography, chemistry
Scottish chemist famous for his discovery of the noble gases (rare gases), for which achievement he was awarded the 1904 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.
Ramsay was born in Glasgow on 2 October 1852, the son of an engineer (whose father, Ramsay's grandfather, founded the Glasgow Chemical Society). Despite this technical and scientific background, Ramsay received a classical education and entered the University of Glasgow in 1866, when he was only 14 years old, to take an arts course. Two years later he went to work in the laboratory of the Glasgow City Analyst, where he soon made up the deficiencies in his science education, and in 1870 he left for Germany to carry out research in organic chemistry under Rudolf Fittig (1835-1910) at Tübingen, gaining his PhD in 1873.
Ramsay then returned to Glasgow as an assistant at Anderson's College (later the Royal Technical College), followed by a post at the university. In 1880 he was appointed professor of chemistry at the newly created University College of Bristol (later Bristol University) and a year later became principal of the college. Then in 1887 he moved to become professor of chemistry at University College, London, as successor to Alexander Williamson, where he remained until he retired in 1912. He was knighted in 1902. After retirement he moved to a house near High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, where he continued some research in converted stables. At the outbreak of World War I in 1914 he became busy as a member of various committees. But his health deteriorated and he died in High Wycombe on 23 July 1916.
In the early 1870s, in Glasgow, Ramsay initially continued research in organic chemistry, investigating alkaloids and pyridine. During 1876 he met J B Henney, a young chemist who was interested in the chemistry of minerals. Together they studied water loss in salts and later the solubility of gases in solids.
At Bristol 1880-87 Ramsay worked principally on liquid-vapour systems, relying heavily on able assistants such as Sydney Young because much of his time as principal was taken up obtaining financial support for the new college.
At University College, London, his first action was to reorganize the out-of-date laboratory. He and his students investigated diketones, the metallic compounds of ethylene (ethene), and the atomic weight (relative atomic mass) of boron. Ramsay became interested in an article in Nature (September 1892) by Lord Rayleigh in which he reported finding a difference in the densities of samples of nitrogen extracted from air and from chemical sources. After corresponding with Rayleigh, Ramsay undertook to study the problem. With the help of his assistant Percy Williams, he passed nitrogen from air over heated magnesium (to form magnesium nitride). After this treatment, about 6% of the gas still remained; further treatments reduced the volume of the residual gas even further, until they were left with an unknown gas of density 20 (oxygen = 16). Despite losing the sample in a laboratory accident, they finally established that it was the new element argon (which had contaminated the nitrogen derived from air).
Early in 1895 Ramsay became interested in helium, a gas known from spectrographic evidence to be present on the Sun but yet to be found on Earth. W F Hillebrand had reported that certain uranium minerals on being heated produced a gas that was chemically inert, and Ramsay repeated these experiments and obtained enough of the gas to send a sample to William Crookes for spectrographic analysis. Crookes confirmed that it was helium. Ramsay and his co-workers soon made the connection between helium and argon and in his book The Gases of the Atmosphere (1896) he repeated his earlier suspicion that there was an eighth group of elements at the end of the periodic table. He drew up a table with gaps for the unknown elements.
During the next decade Ramsay and Morris Travers sought the remaining noble gases by the fractional distillation of liquid air. Krypton, neon, and xenon took until 1898 to isolate. The last member of the series, radon, is a product of radioactive decay. It was identified in 1901 from a minute sample prepared by Ramsay and Robert Whytlaw-Gray (1877-1958).
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