Skip to main content
Select Source:

Ramsay, William


(b. Glasgow, Scotland, 2 October 1852; d. Hazlemere [near High Wycombe], Buckinghamshire, England, 23 July 1916)

physical chemistry.

Ramsay is best known for his discovery and isolation of the family of inert gases of the atmosphere. For this experimental work, along with the theoretical work that situated these elements in the periodic system, he was awarded the 1904 Nobel Prize in chemistry.

Ramsay was the only child of the civil engineer and businessman William Ramsay, whose forebears were chemist-dyers, and Catherine Robertson. He was raised in the Calvinist tradition. After completing his secondary education at the Glasgow Academy, Ramsay matriculated in November 1866 at the University of Glasgow, where he read the standard course in classics. Although he was originally intended for the ministry, his latent interests in science gradually developed. He attended the chemistry lectures of John Ferguson in 1869–1870 and the physics lectures of William Thomson in 1870. From 1869 he also worked for eighteen months as chemist apprentice for the local analyst, Robert Tatlock, further developing his interest and ability in chemistry.

In April 1871 Ramsay went to the organic chemistry laboratory of Fittig, who, in 1870, had accepted the chair of chemistry at the University of Tübingen. Under Fittig’s guidance, Ramsay did research on nitrotoluic acids and in August 1872 received the Ph.D. at the age of nineteen.

Returning to Glasgow, Ramsay was appointed assistant under Georg Bischof at Anderson’s College. In 1874 he became tutorial assistant to Ferguson at the university and published his first independent scientific paper- At that time he considered himself “a promising youth who will be most persistent and stick … to his work.”1

In 1880 Ramsay was appointed professor of chemistry at the provincial University College, Bristol. The principalship of the college was entrusted to him in 1881, and he retained this post until 1887. In August 1881 he married Margaret Buchanan. They had two children.

In 1887 Ramsay succeeded Alexander Williamson in the chair of chemistry at University College-London. He set up a private laboratory at the college and worked there for twenty-five years until his retirement in 1912. At London, although no longer an educational administrator, Ramsay continued to struggle for educational excellence and for the independence of provincial institutions begun at Bristol.2 In 1892 he led a successful attempt to improve the significance of both teaching and research at University College; he sought to make research an integral part of the basis on which degrees were awarded by the University of London.

Ramsay, the eternal optimist, whose motto was said to be “be kind,” was above all a highly cultured gentleman. He was well traveled, fluent in several languages, and able to converse with colleagues, students, and acquaintances alike. He was admired and beloved by almost all who knew him: and his boyish vigor and simple charm, unaffected by the many honors showered upon him, remained with him throughout his life. His active inquiring mind, enthusiasm, and total involvement never allowed him to postpone anything. He was a good and patient teacher and was extremely interested in educational matters, particularly those concerning chemistry. He continually improved his own skills with laboratory techniques and apparatus and was always willing to acknowledge his mistakes. His tendency to persist in a given line of research even when no results were forthcoming was offset by a continuous line of faithful collaborators. Ramsay was “a great general who wanted an able chief-of-staff. All his best work was done with a colleague.”3 Not a great theorist, his best work was also inevitably along experimental lines.

The Royal Society elected Ramsay a fellow in 1888 and awarded him the Davy Medal in 1895. In addition to the Nobel Prize he received the Hodgkins Prize from the Smithsonian Institution (1895), the Longstaff Medal from the London Chemical Society (1897), and the Hofmann Medal from the German Chemical Society (1903), and many honorary degrees. In 1902 Ramsay was made a K.C.B.

His career in physical chemistry can be divided into four periods: the Glasgow period (1874–1880), during which he dealt with matters mostly pertaining to organic chemistry; the Bristol-London period (1880–1894), during which he dealt with the critical states of liquids and vapors; the early London period (1894–1900), during which he concentrated on the inert gases; and the final London period (1901–1916), during which he became increasingly interested in radioactivity.

At Glasgow, Ramsay inherited from Ferguson’s predecessor, Thomas Anderson, preparations of pyridine bases of about 1854 vintage. From them Ramsay produced, by oxidation, a variety of pyridinic acids. He also succeeded in synthesizing pyridine itself Collaborating with his senior student, James Dobbie, Ramsay studied the relationship between the acids formed from the oxidation of the alkaloids of both quinine and cinchonine and the acids he had earlier produced from the pyridine bases. These observations showed the important connection between pyridine and its derivative alkaloids. Ramsay was one of the first scientists to offer a plausible explanation for Brownian movement.4

At Bristol, Ramsay investigated critical states. This topic arose at Glasgow from a controversy with James Hannay; and with the appointment of Sydney Young as Ramsay’s assistant,5 it became his main line of research. From 1882 the “firm of Ramsay and Young” published6 more than thirty papers concerning research on vapor pressure and critical states of liquids. “The question whether Kopp’s quantitative laws hold at all pressures … remained in an unsatisfactory state until Ramsay and Young published their exhaustive researches on the vapour pressures of liquids.”7 Their series of investigations on evaporation and dissociation was continued even after Ramsay’s 1887 appointment in London. During this important period of collaboration, Ramsay improved his laboratory techniques, learned the art of glass blowing, and laid the foundation for his later experimental research on vapors and gases.

While in London, Ramsay continued, until 1894, his researches into critical states with John Shields and others. He determined the molecular weights of associated (or aggregated) liquids and verified Eötvös’s determination (1886) of a linear relationship between surface tension and temperature. With Shields, he developed an experimental method for determining the molecular weight of a substance in the liquid state. Ramsay also investigated the molecular complexity of liquids and distinguished between molecular associating liquids and nonassociating liquids. He became interested in “pseudo-solutions” and assisted his students Harold Picton and S. Ernest Linder.

Ramsay was a close friend of Wilhelm Ostwald and became a strong advocate of the ionic theory of Arrhenius and its relation to colligative properties (for example, osmotic pressure) of solutions.

In the period 1880–1894 Ramsay had already investigated various aspects of gas analysis. After the announcement from Lord Rayleigh (7 September 1892) reconsidering the discrepancy between atmospheric and chemical nitrogen (first noted by Cavendish in 1785), Ramsay had speculated upon its cause. He followed with particular interest Rayleigh’s presentation to the Royal Society on 19 April 1894. Concerning this confirmation of the discrepancy, Ramsay recalled, in a letter of August 1894, that Rayleigh gave “numbers about which there could be no reasonable doubt. I asked him then if he minded my trying to solve the mystery. He thought that the cause of the discrepancy was a light gas in non-atmospheric nitrogen; I thought that the cause was a heavy gas in atmospheric nitrogen. He spent the summer in looking for the light gas; I spent July in hunting for the heavy one. And I have succeeded in isolating it.”8

Ramsay had removed the oxygen from atmospheric air by sparking and had removed the nitrogen by combining it with heated magnesium to form magnesium nitride. On 7 August 1894 he wrote that the residue was definitely “a gas of density between 19 and 20, which is not absorbed by magnesium … and [which] appears to be a most astonishingly indifferent body… , Further experiments will show whether it displays such inertness towards all other elements… “9 Ramsay, having written Rayleigh on 4 August about his successful isolation, received on 7 August a reply from him that he had also been partially successful. By mutual agreement, Rayleigh (who had first established the discrepancy) and Ramsay (who had isolated its cause and partially determined its nature) joined in a preliminary announcement of their results on 13 August to the British Association at Oxford. During a further period of combined research, they named the gas argon, determined by the speed of sound in the gas that it is monatomic, and found that it has an atomic weight of about 40. With supporting evidence in January from Crookes and Olszewski concerning the uniqueness of its spectrum and its well-defined critical points, Ramsay and Rayleigh formally presented their results on argon in a joint paper to the Royal Society on 31 January 1895.

On 1 February 1895 H. A. Miers wrote to Ramsay suggesting that the 1890 “nitrogen”10 of William Hillebrand might also be argon. Ramsay then prepared a quantity of this gas by boiling cleveite in weak sulfuric acid and gave it to Crookes for spectrum analysis. In 1868 Janssen made solar spectroscopic observations that yielded a new spectral line, which suggested to Lockyer the presence of an unknown element in the sun. Crookes’s spectroscopic analysis of the gas prepared by Ramsay confirmed the presence of this same element. On 27 March 1895 Ramsay announced the existence of terrestrial helium; and this was independently confirmed in Cleve’s laboratory at Uppsala and reported 8 April 1895.11 In August, Kayser announced the presence of atmospheric helium as well.

From April 1895 Ramsay was joined by Travers, and together they confirmed the inert nature of helium and identified its physical characteristics. Their discovery that helium arises from thorium as well as uranium minerals was a fact requiring developments in radioactivity (1902) for an explanation. With the confirmation in 1898 by Edward Baly of the presence of atmospheric helium in unexpectedly large quantities with respect to the less volatile gases, the existence of helium in thorium and uranium minerals was considered an explanation for the replenishing of atmospheric helium, but the connection with radioactivity had not yet been drawn.

In 1897, Ramsay, as President of the Chemistry Section of the British Association meeting in Toronto, delivered an address with the title “An Undiscovered Gas.” He showed that in accordance with the Periodic Law, using a method of analysis12 which avoided a difficulty arising from the fact that the position of argon in the Periodic Table seemed to be abnormal, there was a very high probability that there must exist a gas having properties intermediate between those of helium and argon.13

Olszewski’s work on the liquefaction of argon had indicated that its residue might indeed contain another constituent. Thus, after improving their techniques of gas manipulation (1895–1897), Ramsay and Travers began to search for a third inert gas. In May 1898, shortly before receiving fifteen liters of liquid argon residue, they tested the procedure with a liter of liquid air. They collected the least volatile gaseous fraction as the liquid air evaporated and, after removing the oxygen and nitrogen, spectro-scopically examined the inert residue. On 31 May 1898 they observed the yellow and green lines characteristic of krypton and on 6 June first announced their results As soon as the liquid argon residue arrived, they separated (11 June) the most volatile gaseous fraction. After further preparation, they spectroscopically examined the residue and on 12 June 1898 observed the crimson presence of neon, which they announced on 16 June. In their excitement they also announced their discovery of “metargon,” but this proved to be a mixture of impurities in the gas.

After confirming the presence of atmospheric krypton and neon, Ramsay and Travers continued to develop techniques to obtain quantities of these gases sufficient for the research on their chemical and physical properties. The krypton residue collected from preliminary attempts to obtain such quantities was found (July 1898) to contain about twenty percent of an even less volatile constituent, which added several new blue lines to the krypton residue but which totaled only 6 × 10-9 percent of the atmosphere. They announced this gas, xenon, on 8 September 1898.

By April 1899 Ramsay and Travers had secured their own liquid-air apparatus and were thus able to obtain enough krypton and xenon for physical analysis. Neon, however, being more volatile, resisted liquefaction by means of liquid-air techniques. Travers therefore rigged up a liquid hydrogen apparatus based on Dewar’s demonstration in 1898 of the feasibility of obtaining adequate quantities of liquid hydrogen. They were thus able to solidify neon; and by July 1900 they had determined its properties.

Having identified, isolated, and determined the properties of five of the inert gases, Ramsay traveled to India and was engaged to advise on the organization of an Institute of Science to train Indian graduates.

By late 1902 Ramsay had become interested in the new gas, “emanation,” that Rutherford had linked (1899) to thorium and F. E. Dorn had linked (1900) to radium. Rutherford was joined in 1901 by Soddy, who established the inert character of “emanation” by passing it, unchanged, over Ramsay’s most extreme reagents (including red-hot magnesium powder and red-hot palladium black). By 1902 they had liquefied “emanation” and had obtained preliminary results on its well-defined points of volatilization and condensation. At Ramsay’s invitation, Soddy joined Ramsay in March 1903 to initiate research on radioactivity at the latter’s laboratory. Ramsay was particularly interested in determining whether radioactivity was a general characteristic of inert gases. Comparing the behavior of “emanation” with the other known inert gases, Soddy convinced Ramsay by May 1903 that it was unique in this respect.

In June 1903 Soddy obtained twenty milligrams of radium bromide, which had been produced commercially by Giesel. The emanation from a solution preparation of radium bromide was collected in a spectrum tube, and after several days they observed the spectrum of helium. In 1902 Rutherford and Soddy, on the basis of their disintegration theory, suggested that the well-known excess of atmospheric and terrestrial helium might be connected with radioactivity. The experimental proof by Ramsay and Soddy that helium is produced directly from radium emanation was a strong confirmation of their disintegration theory.

Using the emanation from about fifty14 milligrams of radium bromide, Ramsay and Soddy attempted in 1903–1904 to map the spectrum of radium emanation; but the quantity proved to be too small to maintain the necessary spark discharge. During this same period Ramsay and J. N. Collie, using more than one hundred milligrams of radium bromide, were able to obtain sufficient emanation for a preliminary spectrum determination. By 1908 Ramsay and A. T. Cameron had experimentally confirmed the spectrum of radium emanation. In later experiments Ramsay and Whytlaw-Gray determined (1910) the density of this gas, in 1918 C. Schmidt gave the name radon to the emanation from radium to distinguish it from the emanations from thorium (thoron) and actinium (actinon). In 1904 Ramsay had suggested “exradio,” “exthorio,” and “exactinc” for these emanations; he later suggested the term “niton” for the emanation from radium. They found that the quantity of radon in equilibrium from one gram of radium is 0.6 cubic millimeters, about one-half the value estimated in 1904 by Ramsay and Soddy. Weighing a small fraction of this quantity with an extremely delicate microbalance designed for the purpose, Ramsay and Gray determined the density of radon—assuming its monatomicity, they determined the atomic weight to be 223; that is, about four units lighter than radium. This determination further confirmed the theory that the transition from radium to radon involves the expulsion of helium.

With Richard Moore, Ramsay investigated (1907–1908) the residue from twenty tons of liquid air for possible nonradioactive inert gases lighter than helium or heavier than xenon; but they achieved only negative results. Stimulated by “the probable presence of nebulium in the nebulae and coronium in the sun,”15 they repeated this investigation using the residue from more than one hundred tons of liquid air. Although these investigations were also negative, they did yield about 250 cubic centimeters of xenon and krypton and permitted a redetermination of their densities.

From 1903 Ramsay became increasingly interested in radioactivity. By 1905 he was convinced of the severable nature of the atoms of elements. Interpreting atomic disintegration as just one type of dissociation, involving highly endothermic substances, he considered it possible to dissociate and synthesize elements. Hahn’s discovery of radiothorium in 1905 gave additional authority to the results on radioactivity coming from Ramsay’s laboratory. Ramsay interpreted James Spencer’s results (1906) concerning the dissociation of metal surfaces under ultraviolet radiation in the same way he had interpreted radioactive disintegration, except that the nonradioactive case required a slight input of energy. From 1907 Ramsay became involved in attempts to transmute elements, using radon as the external source of energy. Working with Cameron, by 1908 he had dissociated carbon monoxide into its components, had decomposed a variety of materials, and had allegedly obtained lithium from copper. But the latter result, which seemed a case of true transmutation, was not confirmed.

Ramsay adopted the view that the atom consisted of a vast number of electrons, and he considered some electrons more constitutive than others. “Ramsay’s theory was that when an alpha particle struck a non-radio-active atom a glancing blow near the surface the atom was ionized; if it struck the atom squarely in the centre, the latter was broken up with the formation of new elements.”16 in 1912 Ramsay thought he had evidence to prove that neon was a product of radioactive change. (Inert helium had been so suggested by 1903.) In 1913 Rutherford’s concept of the nuclear atom led Ramsay to refine concept of the nuclear atom led Ramsay to refine his own atomic model. Rutherford also bombarded various substances with alpha particles and by 1919, using the scintillation method instead of chemical techniques, had detected the release of hydrogen from disintegrating nitrogen. This discovery was the beginning of the important and fruitful line of investigation by Rutherford concerning nuclear disintegration.17

Ramsay officially retired in 1912 but remained at his London post until succeeded by Donnan in March 1913. During World War I Ramsay continued to conduct scientific research at his home in Hazlemere but became deeply involved in the violent anti-German feeling of the lime; in spite of this, he was mourned internationally at his death at the height of the conflict.


1. Travers, Life of Ramsay, 30, 265.

2. His efforts were rewarded in 1899 when both Bristol and Owens colleges received university status; Bristol College became a full university in 1909 (Travers, op. city., 86).

3. Travers to Frederick Soddy, 10 October 1949, referring to the former’s Life of Ramsay,. p. 61. This letter exists in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, Soddy-Howorth Collection, folder 43.

4. F. Cajori, A History of Physics (New York, 1962), 352; M. J. Nye, Molecular Reality: A Perspective on the Scientific Work of Jean Perrin(London, 1972), 26–27.

5. In 1887 Young succeeded Ramsay as professor of chemistry at Bristol.

6. Ostwald referred to their collaboration in this manner. inquiring of Ramsay if it would continue beyond 1887; cf. Travers, “Ramsay and University College,” p. 7. Young continued independently this same line of research; their only extensive joint publication after 1888–1889 was on the properties of water and steam in 1891–1892.

7. S. Smiles, The Relations Between Chemical Constitution and Some Physical Properties (London, 1910), 234.

8. Ramsay to his aunt, the wife of the geologist Andrew Ramsay, August 1894. Part of the original letter is reproduced in Travers, Life of Ramsay.103–104. For a well-balanced historical account of the discovery of argon, see Hiebert, “The Discovery of Argon,” in H. H. Hyman.

9. Ramsay, “On a New Gas Contained in Air,” unpublished MS (7 August 1894). The original exists at University College London, Library, Ramsay Papers, vol. 7/1, pp. 87–108. Travers, Life 118 and 119, has the first and last pages reproduced. The quotation is from the last two pages of the manuscript, pp. 20–21.

10. Hillebrand, “On the Occurrence of Nitrogen in Uraninite and on the Composition of Uraninite in General,” in Bulletin of the United States Geological Survey, 78 (1890), 43–78.

11. P. F, Cleve, “Sur la présence de l’hélium dans la clèvèite,” in Comptes rendus hebdomadaires des seances de P Académic des sciences. 120 (1895), 834.

12. This method was not an uncommon approach. By a similar analysis and comparison of the groups within the periodic table, Stoney had theoretically predicted in 1888 an unoccupied series of positions in which the entire family of inert gases was later placed; cf. Lord Rayleigh (J. W. Strutt), “On Dr Johnstone Stoney’s Logarithmic Law of Atomic Weights,” in Proceedings of the Royal Society, 85, (1911), 471–473.

13. Travers, “Ramsay and University College,” p. 18.

14. The additional thirty milligrams had been lent to Soddy by Rutherford.

15. R. B. Moore, “Ramsay” (1918), 39.

16.Ibid., 42. Moore was present during the beginning of Ramsay’s transmutation investigations. This statement is unconditioned by Rutherford’s successful results in 1919.

17. Cf. T. J. Trenn, “The Justification of Transmutation Speculations of Ramsay and Experiments of Rutherford,” in Ambix, 21 (1974), 53–77.


I. Original Works. No complete bibliography of Ramsay’s nearly 300 papers exists. Tilden included a brief list of the Ramsay-Young papers in his Ramsay Memorials, 99–101. More than half of his papers were listed by Richard B. Moore in his article “Sir William Ramsay,” in Journal of the Franklin Institute, 186 (1918), 29–55.

The following list is intended only to supplement and correct Moore. In cases where only the abstract was listed by Moore, this supplement lists the main paper. Obvious errors, including names of collaborators, titles of journals, and the inclusion of several articles by another William Ramsay, are not even noticed or included in this supplement. This supplement is furthermore also selective and does not normally cite multiple publication of articles. The lists by Tilden and Moore together with this supplement cover about 80 percent of his scientific contributions. Most of Ramsay’ papers appered in Berichte der Deutschen Chemischen Gesellschaft, Chemical News and Journal of Physical (Industrial) Science, and Zeitschrift für Physikalische Chemie, but few of these were original publications.

Ramsay’ supplementary papers are Investigations on the Toluic and Nitrotoluic Acids (Tübingen, 1872), his inaugural diss.; “On the Influence of Various Substances in Accelerating the Preciptation of Clay Suspended in Water,” in Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London32 (1876), 129–132; “On Smwell” in Proceedings of the Bristol Naturalists’ Society3 (1882), 299–302; “Some Thermodynamical Relations” in Proceedings of the Physical Society of London7 (1885), 289–306, 307–326, 327–334; 8 (1886), 56–61, 61–65; “The Estimation of Free Oxygen in Water” in Journal of the Chemical Society49 (1886), 751–761, written with K. I. Williams; “Note as to the Existence of an Allotropic Modification of Nitrogen” in Proceedings of the Chemical Society2 (1886), 223–225, written with K. I. Williams; and “Researches on Evaporation and Dissociation” in Proceedings of the Bristol Naturalists Society5 (1888), 298–328.

See also “On the Destructive Distillation of Wood” in Journal of the Society of Chemical Industry11 (1892), 395–403, 872–874, written with John Chorley; “The Molecular Surface-Energy of Mixtures of Non-associating Liquids” in Proceedings of the Royal Society56 (1894), 182–191, written with Emily Aston; “Argon, a New Constituent of the Atmosphere” ibid., 57 (1895), 265–287, written with Stutt; “Largon” in Reuue Scientifique 4th ser., 4 (1895), 545–547; “On the Discovery of Helium in Cleveite,” in Journal of the Chemical Society67 (1895), 1107–1108; “On the Occlusion of Oxygen and Hydrogen by Platinum Black,” in Philosophical Transsations of the Royal Society186 (1895), 657–693; 190 (1897), 129–153, written with L. Mond and John Shields; “On the Determination of High Temperetures with the Meldometer” inProceedings of the Physical Society of London14 (1896), 105–113, written with N. Eumorfopoulos; “An Attempt to Determine the Adiabatic Relations of Ethylic Oxide” in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society189 (1897), 167–188, written with E. P. Perman and John Rose-Innes; and “Sur un nouvel élément constituant de l’air atmosphérique” in Comptes rendus hebdomadaries des Seances de l’Academie des sciences126 (1898), 1610–1613, written with Travers, with trans as “On a New Constituent of Atmosopheric Air,” inProceedings of the Royal Society, 63 (1898), 405–408.

See also “On the Companions of Argon,” ibid., 63 (1898), 437–440, written with Travers; “On the Extraction From Air of the Companions of Argon on Neon,” in Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1898), 828–830, written with Travers; “On the Occlusion of Hydrogen and Oxygen by Palladium,” in Philosophical Trasactions of the Royal Society191 (1898), 105–126, written with L. Mond and J. Shields; “On the Companions of Argon” ibid., 197 (1901), 47–89, written with Travers; “The Vapour-Densities of Some Carbon Compounds; An Attempt to Determine Their Correct Molecular Wrights,” inProceedings of the Physical Society of London18 (1902), 543–572, written with Bertram D. Steele; “Gases Occluded by Radium Bromide” in Nature68 (1903), 246, written with Soddy; “Further Experiments on the Production of Helium, From Radium,” in Proceedings of the Royal Society73 (1904), 346–358, written with Soddy; “Sur la dégradation des éléments,” in Journal de chimie Physique et de physichmie biobliogique5 (1907), 647–652; “Les gas inertes de l’atmosphére, et leur dérivation de l’émanation des corpos radioactifs,” in Archives des sciences physiques et naturelles, 26 (1908), 237–262; and “Experiments With Kathode Rays” in Nature89 (1912), 502.

The following is a supplementary list of some of Ramsay’ most important lectures and addresses. “Liquids and Gases” (8 May 1891), in Proceedings of the Royal Institution of Great; Britin13 (1890–1892), 365–374 published 1893; “On Argon and hélium,” Graham Lecture (8 January 1896), in Proceedings. Philosophical Society of Glasgow27 (1896), 92–116; “The Position of Argon and Helium Among the Elements” Fifth Boyle Lecture (2 June 1896), in Transations of the Oxford University Junior Scientific Club2 no. 41 (1896); “An Undiscovered Gas” Presidential address—chemistry section, in Rep. Brit. Ass., Toronto (1897), 593–601; “Lhelium,” read to the Chemical Society of france, in Annales de chimie et de Physique 7th ser., 13 (1898), 433–480, with summary trans. in Tilden, Ramsay Memorials 142–145; “The Newly Discovered Elements; and Their Relation to the Kinetic Theory of Gases” Wilde Lecture (28 March 1899), in Memioirs and Proceedings of the Manchester Literary and Philsophil Society43 no. 4 (1899); “The Aurora Borealies,” Watt Lecture (9 January 1903), in papers of the Greenock Philosophical society (1903); “Present Problems of Inorganic Chemistry,” address to the International Congress of Arts and Sciences, St. Louis (Sept., 1904), in Report of the Board oofRegentrs of the Smithsoniam Institution no. 1604 (1905), 207–220; “The Sequence of Events” Nobel Lecture (December 1904) published as Les Prix Nobel en 1904 (Stockholm, 1906); and “The Electron as an Element” Presidential address—London Chemical Society (26 Mar. 1908), in Journal of the Chemical Societry93 (1908), 774–788.

See also Die edlen und dieradioaktiven Gase (Leipzig, 1908), “Elements and Electorons” Prersidential address— London Chemical Society (25 Mar. 1909), in Journal of the Chemical Society95 (1909), 624–637; “Les mesures de quantités infinitésimales de matières” (20 April 1911), inJournal de physique théorique et appliquée 7th ser., 1 (1911), 429–442; and “Le rôole del hélium dans la nature” read to the Chemical Society of Italy (2 June 1913), Revue scientifique, 51 (1913), 545–551.

Ramsay wrote and lectured extensively on educational matters and on general topics; these works include “Education in Science in Britain and in Germany,” read 30 September 1896 (Bangor, 1896); “The Functions of a University,” read 6 June 1901 (London, 1901), reprinted in Essays Biographical and Chemical (1908), 227–247; “Progress in Chemistry in the Nineteenth Century,” in Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution, no. 1272 (1901), 233–257; “Les gaz de l’atmosphère,” in Revue générole des sciences pures et appliquées, 13 (1902), 804–810; “The Inert Constituents of the Atmosphere,” in Popular Science Monthly, 59 (1901), 581–595; “Über die Erziehung der Chemiker,” in Annalen der Naturphilosophie, 4 (1905), 153–170; and “La Société Royale de Londres,” in Journal des savants, 5 (1907), 61–70. Additional general works, including some of his biographical articles and obituary notices, are in his Essays (1908).

Ramsay’s books are Elementary Systematic Chemistry for the Use of Schools and Colleges (London, 1891); A System of Inorganic Chemistry (London, 1891); Kurzes Lehrbuch der Chemie: nach den neuesten Forschungen der Wissenschaft (Anklam, 1893), prepared by G. C. Schmidt; and Gases of the Atmosphere: The History of Their Discovery (London, 1896; 2nd ed., 1900; 3rd ed., 1905; 4th ed., 1915). Each ed. was revised to include interim developments; a trans. of the third ed. by M. Huth was Die Gase der Atmosphäre und die Geschichte ihrer Entdeckung (Halle, 1907). Modern Chemistry: Theoretical (London, 1900) and Modern Chemistry: Systematic (London, 1900) were translated by M. Huth as Moderne Chemie, Teil I: Theoretische Chemie (Halle, 1905; 2nd ed., 1908) and Moderne Chemie, Teil II: Systematische Chemie (Halle, 1906; 2nd ed., 1914). This work was also translated into Russian by L. A. Tchougaeff (Moscow, 1909).

See also Introduction to the Study of Physical Chemistry (London, 1904); Essays Biographical and Chemical (London, 1908), with several of Ramsay’s lectures and general essays; a trans. by Wilhelm Ostwald appeared as Vergangenes und Künftiges aus der Chemie: Biographische und Chemische Essays (Leipzig, 1909; 2nd ed., 1913), with an introductory thirty-five-page autobiography by Ramsay. Subsequent writings are Elements and Electrons (London, 1912); Die Edelgase, written with George Rudorf, which is vol. II in W. Ostwald’s Handbuch der allgemeinen Chemie (1918); and Life and Letters of Joseph Black, M.D. (London, 1918), with an eleven-page intro. by Donnan dealing with the life and work of Ramsay.

Some of Ramsay’s correspondence is included by Tilden in Ramsay Memorials and by Travers in Life of Ramsay. Other correspondence was published in R. J. Strutt, Life of John William Strutt, Third Baron Rayleigh(London, 1924), revised (Madison, 1968); and in E. E. Fournier D’Albe, The Life of Sir William Crookes (London, 1923).

Over seventy letters from Ramsay to Rayleigh, mostly from 1894 to 1898, are listed in John N. Howard, ed., “The Rayleigh Archives Dedication,” special rep., 63 (Cambridge, Mass., 1967), B8-B11. Correspondence between Ramsay and Rutherford, mostly dated about November 1907, exists at Cambridge University Library Add. MSS 7653/R2-R15. By far the largest collection of Ramsay materials is preserved at the Library of University College London, largely through the efforts of M. W. Travers and the kindness of the Ramsay family. This collection consists of sixteen bound volumes of correspondence, mostly to Ramsay, his laboratory notebooks, lecture notes, off prints of many of his publications, and many other items. A twenty-three-page handlist entitled “Ramsay Papers” was prepared by the Library in 1969. This library also has correspondence from Ramsay in the Oliver J. Lodge Collection. A two-page autobiographical letter dated 15 April 1886 exists in the Krause Album held in the Sondersammlungen, Bibliothek, Deutsches Museum, Munich.

II. Secondary Literature. The best biography is Morris W. Travers, The Discovery of the Rare Gases(London, 1928), expanded and revised, with a detailed biographical account, as A Life of Sir William Ramsay, K.C.B., F.R.S. (London, 1956). See also H. Pettersson, “Minnen av Sir William Ramsay,” in Götheborgske Spionen, 4 (1940), 13–16. Frederick G. Donnan wrote the biographical account introducing Ramsay’s Life of Black (1918) and the notice for the Dictionary of National Biography 1912–1921(London, 1927), 444–446.

See also Luigi Balbiano, “L’opera sperimentale di Guglielmo Ramsay,” in Atti dell’ Accademia della scienze di Torino, 52 (1916–1917), 29–38; J. Norman Collie’s obituary notice “Sir William Ramsay, 1852–1916,” in Proceedings of the Royal Society, 93A (1917), xlii–liv; Eduard Farber, Nobel Prize Winners in Chemistry 1901–1961 (London, 1963), 15–18; Philippe-A. Guye, “Sir William Ramsay,” in Journal de chimie physique, 16 (1918), 377–387; W. Marckwald, “Sir William Ramsay,” inZeitschrift für Elektrochemie, 22 (1916), 325–327; Richard B. Moore, “Sir William Ramsay,” in Journal of the Franklin Institute, 186 (1918), 29–55, with extensive bibliography; and Wilhelm Ostwald, “Scientific Worthies XXXVII: Sir William Ramsay, K.C.B., F.R.S.,” in Nature, 88 (1912), 339–342, with portrait. Charles Moureu’s notice in Revue scientifique, 10 (Oct. 1919), 609–618, was translated in Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution for 1919(1921), 531–546; and reissued in Eduard Farber,ed., Great Chemists (New York, 1961), 997–1012. See also Edmond Perrier, “Eloge,” in Comptes rendus hebdomadaires des séances de l’Académie des sciences, 163 (1916), 113–116.

Paul Sabatier, “Sir William Ramsay et son oeuvre,” in Revue scientifiques, 54 (Oct. 1916), 609–616, gives a scholarly analysis of many of Ramsay’s papers. See H. G. Söderbaum, “The Winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for This Year,” in Svensk kemisk tidskrift, 8 (1904), 183–187; and “Professor William Ramsay,” in Proceedings of the Bristol Naturalist’s Society, 8 (1895–1896), 1–5; Frederick Soddy’s obituary “Sir William Ramsay, K.C.B., F.R.S.,” in Nature, 97 (10 Aug. 1916), 482–484, with excerpts included in Travers, Life of Ramsay, 291–293; William A. Tilden, Sir William Ramsay, K.C.B., F.R.S., Memorials of His Life and Work (London, 1918), containing much otherwise unavailable documentation; Famous Chemists: The Men and Their Work (London, 1921), 273–287; and “Sir William Ramsay, K.C.B.,” in Journal of the Society of Chemical Industry, 35 (31 Aug. 1916), 877–880, with repr. in Journal of the Chemical Society, 111 (1917), 369–376; P. Walden, “Lothar Meyer, Mendelejeff, Ramsay und das periodische System der Elemente,” in Günther Bugge, Das Buch der Grossen Chemiker, 2nd ed., II (Weinheim-Bergstr., 1955), 229–287, with a biographical sketch of Ramsay on pp. 250–263; T. I. Williams, in A Biographical Dictionary of Scientists (London, 1969), 432–433; and A. M. Worthington, “Sir William Ramsay K.C.B., F.R.S.,” in Nature, 97 (1916), 484–485. Additional works are listed in N. O. Ireland, Index to Scientists of the World (Boston, 1962); and M. Whitrow, ed., Issi Cumulative Bibliography. II (1971), 381.

Articles written for the 1952 centenary include E. Andrade, “William Ramsay: Great Discover and Leader of Chemical Research,” in the Times (London), 2 Oct. 1952; Sir Harold Hartley, “Ramsay and the Inert Gases,” in Observer (28 Sept. 1952); “The Ramsay Centenary,” in Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 10 (1953), 71–80; J. R. Partington, “Sir William Ramsay Discoverer of Five Elements,” in Manchester Guardian Weekly (2 Oct. 1952); “Sir William Ramsay I852–19I6,” in Nature, 170 (1952), 554–555; M. W. Travers, “Sir William Ramsay (1852–1916),” in Endeavour, 11 (1952), 126–131, “The Scientific Work of Sir William Ramsay,” in Science Progress (1952), 232–244; and William Ramsay and University College London (London, 1952), privately issued for the Ramsay centennial.

Probably the best account of Ramsay’s work on argon is Erwin N. Hiebert, “Historical Remarks on the Discovery of Argon: The First Noble Gas,” in H. H. Hyman, ed., Noble-Gas Compounds (Chicago, 1963), 3–20. David M. Knight, in R. Harré. ed., Some Sinetcenih-Century British Scientists (Oxford, 1969), 232–259, discusses the determination of the monatomic character of argon and the analysis of the periodic law as a predictor of new elements. R. J. Havlik’s article in Gerhard A. Cook, ed., Argon, Helium and the Rare Gases, I (New York, 1961), 17–34, and J. R. Partington, A History of Chemistry, IV (London, 1964), 915–918, give useful historical accounts of Ramsay’s work. See also R. B. Moore, “Helium: Its History, Properties, and Commercial Development,” in Journal of the Franklin Institute, 191 (1921), 145–197. Zdzislaw Wojtaszek, “On the Scientific Contacts of Karlo Olszewski with William Ramsay,” in Actes du XIe Congrès International Histoire Sciences, 4 (1965), 113–116, examines the significance of the liquefaction of gases. See also J. W. van Spronsen, The Periodic System of Chemical Elements (Amsterdam, 1969), passim.

Ramsay as seen by his contemporaries is partially revealed in Lawrence Badash, ed., Rutherford and Boltwood: Letters on Radioactivity (New Haven, 1969). A nearly complete list of honors, awards, degrees, memberships, prizes, and other achievements is included in Tilden, Ramsay Memorials, pp. 307–308.

Thaddeus J. Trenn

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Ramsay, William." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . 19 Aug. 2017 <>.

"Ramsay, William." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . (August 19, 2017).

"Ramsay, William." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . Retrieved August 19, 2017 from

Ramsay, William

Ramsay, William


William Ramsay, the only child of civil engineer and businessman William Ramsay and his wife Catherine, was born on October 2, 1852, in Glasgow, Scotland. Despite the scientific background of his family, he was expected to study for the ministry. He completed his secondary education at the Glasgow Academy and in 1866 entered the University of Glasgow, where he pursued a standard course of study in the classics. He became interested in chemistry when he read about gunpowder manufacture in a textbook, and he began attending lectures on chemistry and physics as a result. Starting in 1869, he also worked as a chemical apprentice to Glasgow City Analyst Robert Tatlock.

From April 1871 to August 1872, Ramsay worked on toluic and nitrotoluic acids under Rudolf Fittig at the University of Tübingen; these research efforts earned him a Ph.D. at the age of nineteen. In 1872 he became an assistant in chemistry at the Anderson College (now the Royal Technical College) in Glasgow and in 1874 a tutorial assistant at the University of Glasgow. He was appointed a professor of chemistry at University College, Bristol, in 1880. In 1887 he became a professor of inorganic chemistry at University College, London, where he remained until his retirement in 1913.

Ramsay was a scientist of exceptionally wide interests and talents. His earliest works centered on organic chemistry. Beginning in the 1880s, he pursued topics related to physical chemistry, such as stoichiometry, thermodynamics, surface tension, density, molecular weights, and the critical states of liquids and vapors. However, his most important achievements involved inorganic chemistry.

In 1785 English chemist Henry Cavendish suggested that, in addition to nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide, and water vapor, air might contain another gas. In 1892 Lord Rayleigh (John William Strutt) found that nitrogen prepared from ammonia (NH3) was less dense than nitrogen prepared from air. He reported his results in the journal Nature and asked readers to suggest an explanation for the discrepancy, which was beyond experimental error. At an 1894 meeting of the Royal Society , Lord Rayleigh posited that chemically prepared nitrogen might be contaminated with a less dense gas.

Ramsay believed that, on the contrary, atmospheric nitrogen might contain a denser gas. In large-scale experiments he passed atmospheric nitrogen over hot magnesium, which reacted to form solid magnesium nitride (Mg3N2) and left behind a small amount of unreactive gas. When he analyzed the gas spectroscopically, he observed, in addition to the lines of nitrogen, lines of a gas at that point still unknown. Simultaneously, Rayleigh repeated Cavendish's experiments and confirmed the presence of an unknown gas (1/107 of the original volume).

On August 13, 1894, Rayleigh and Ramsay announced their discovery of a new element in the atmosphere to the British Association at Oxford. Because of its unreactivity, they later called the gas argon, from the Greek word meaning "lazy." Ramsay suggested that argon be placed within a new group of zero-valent elements in the Periodic Table, between chlorine and potassium. In 1895 Ramsay and, independently, Per Theodor Cleve and Nils Abraham Langlet in Sweden, discovered helium, previously known from its solar spectrum, in a radioactive mineral. Also in 1895, Ramsay and the English chemist Morris W. Travers discovered the inert gases krypton (from the Greek, meaning "hidden"), neon (from the Greek, meaning "new"), and xenon (from the Greek, meaning "stranger"). From 1962, when Englishborn American chemist Neil Bartlett prepared xenon hexafluoroplatinate(V), XePtF6, inert gases became known as "noble gases."

In 1904 Ramsay received the Nobel Prize in chemistry "in recognition of his services in the discovery of the inert gaseous elements in air, and his determination of their place in the periodic system," becoming the first British recipient of this award.

see also Argon; Cleve, Per Theodor; Strutt, John (Lord Rayleigh).

George B. Kauffman


Kauffman, George B., and Priebe, Paul M. (1990). "The Emil FischerWilliam Ramsay Friendship: The Tragedy of Scientists in War." Journal of Chemical Education 67: 93101.

Moureu, Charles (1919). "William Ramsay." Revue Scientifique 10: 609618. Reprinted in Farber, Eduard, ed. [1961]. Great Chemists. New York: Interscience Publishers.

Ramsay, William (1904). "The Rare Gases of the Atmosphere, Nobel Lecture, December 12, 1904." In Nobel Lectures Including Presentation Speeches and Laureates' Biographies: Chemistry 19011921 (1966). New York: Elsevier. Also available from <>.

Tilden, William A. (1918). Sir William Ramsay K.C.B., F.R.S.: Memorials of His Life and Work. London: Macmillan.

Travers, Morris W. (1956). A Life of Sir William Ramsay K.C.B., F.R.S. London: Arnold.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Ramsay, William." Chemistry: Foundations and Applications. . 19 Aug. 2017 <>.

"Ramsay, William." Chemistry: Foundations and Applications. . (August 19, 2017).

"Ramsay, William." Chemistry: Foundations and Applications. . Retrieved August 19, 2017 from