Chemistry at Imperial College: the first 150 years

In September 1995 the Chemistry Department celebrated its sesquicentenary, for it was in 1845 that the Royal College of Chemistry (RCC) was founded, the ancestor both of our present chemistry department and of Imperial College itself.

During the early part of the nineteenth century there was a growing awareness that practical aspects of the experimental sciences were not well taught and that in this country the teaching chemistry in particular had fallen behind that in Germany. Experimental chemists like Liebig at Giessen and Bunsen at Gottingen had helped to make the teaching of chemistry there a national priority, and a flourishing German chemical industry was growing. In London in the early 1840's a movement was formed to set up an institute to teach practical chemistry; funds were raised from 76 MP's, 54 peers and 760 others; donors included Peel, Disraeli and Gladstone, and a Royal College of Chemistry (RCC) was set up in 1845. The Prince Consort was an enthusiastic supporter and, through his contacts in Germany, persuaded August von Hofmann, then only 28, to be the first Professor. The college opened in 1845 with 26 students at 16 Hanover Square (the building still stands). Hofmann was an inspired choice: he was a charismatic teacher and became a chemist of international renown. However, the college had financial troubles and in 1848 had to abandon Hanover Square and take cheaper premises at 299 Oxford Street. The move was not accomplished without some difficulty: Hofmann relinquished his free personal accommodation in Hanover Square and gave up part of his salary, but the college secretary refused to move from his free accommodation and had to be evicted by force.

In 1872, with Government support (secured largely with the help of Lyon Playfair, himself a distinguished inorganic chemist) the college moved to the unused building of the School of Naval Architecture in Exhibition Road, South Kensington (now the Henry Cole wing of the Victoria and Albert Museum). There were now physics, mathematics and other departments and in 1881 the famous natural historian T. H. Huxley became Dean. By 1900 the RCC had acquired its present name, the Royal College of Science (RCS). In 1906 the chemistry and physics departments moved to a new building designed by Sir Aston Webb in what is now called Imperial College Road, and in 1907 Imperial College was founded by a combination of the RCS, the Royal School of Mines and the City and Guilds Institute. In 1970, sadly, much of that building was demolished to make way for the present chemistry department edifice, but some of the old building remains in use; it is listed and has recently been cleaned and refurbished with generous help from the Wolfson Foundation.

Many famous chemists were and are at the department. Hofmann is still remembered for his fundamental contributions to organic chemistry and his successor, Sir Edward Frankland, was a pioneer of organometallic chemistry of theories of chemical bonding. Two famous early RCC students were William Perkin. discoverer of the aniline dye mauveine and founder of the British dyestuffs industry, and the great polymath William Crookes who discovered the element thallium and did much fundamental work in physics and radiochemistry. More recent figures include Sir Patrick Linstead, discoverer of the important phthalocyanine dyes and Richard Barrer, developer of zeolites which have become of tremendous importance in the petroleum industry. Two chemists received Nobel Prizes: Sir Derek Barton for his research on organic conformational analysis and Sir Geoffrey Wilkinson for his organometallic work. Sir Derek died in 1998. Sir Geoffrey Wilkinson died in 1997. Many professors of chemistry up and down the country and abroad, and many leading industrial chemists, received their training here. It is one of the few chemistry departments in the country to be given the highest grades both in the research selectivity assessment and in the recent Higher Education Funding Council's teaching assessment. Hofmann would be as proud of the department as it is today as he was of the RCC 150 years ago.

Bill Griffith, Department of Chemistry, Imperial College, London SW7 2AY
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