Remsen, Ira

views updated May 29 2018


(b. New York, N.Y., 10 February 1846; d. Carmel, California, 4 March 1927)

chemistry, education.

Remsen was educated in the New York public schools and, at the age of fourteen, entered the Free Academy (later the College of the City of New York). He did not complete the four-year course there but, at the urging of his father, James Vanderbilt Remsen, became an apprentice to a doctor who taught in a homeopathic medical school. Remsen was dismayed at the inadequacy of the instruction that he was offered and prevailed upon his father to permit him to enroll in the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University, from which he received the M.D. in 1867. Having completed his medical studies and reached his majority, Remsen decided to study chemistry—to which he had been attracted by the lectures of R.O. Doremus at the Cooper Union—and went to Munich to pursue that subject under Liebig. By that time, however, Liebig was no longer giving laboratory instruction, although Remsen was able to attend some of his lectures. Remsen therefore studied for a year with Jacob Volhard then, with Volhard’s help, transferred in the autumn of 1867 to the University of Göttingen, where he worked with Rudolph Fittig. He was granted the Ph.D. in 1870 for his research on the structure of piperic and piperonylic acids.

When Fittig went to Tübingen as professor of chemistry later in 1870, he took Remsen with him as his laboratory and lecture assistant. Remsen held this post for two years, during which he worked independently on the oxidation of ortho- and parasulfotoluene. His investigations led him to Remsen’s law that groups attached to the benzene ring in the ortho position protect paramethyl, paraethyl, and parapropyl groups from oxidation by nitric or chromic acid.

In 1872 Remsen returned to New York to seek an academic appointment. After some months, during which he translated Fittig’s edition of Wöhler’s Organic Chemistry, he was named professor of chemistry and physics at Williams College. He remained there for four years, performing his own laboratory research, although he was unable to institute a course of laboratory work for his students. In 1876, while still at Williams, he published his own Principles of Theoretical Chemistry, an influential text that emphasized Cannizzaro’s determination of molecular weights through Avogadro’s hypothesis.

Remsen’s growing reputation attracted the attention of Daniel Coit Gilman, first president of the new Johns Hopkins University, and in 1876 Remsen accepted Gilman’s offer of a professorship of chemistry. At Johns Hopkins, Remsen was able to introduce many of the teaching methods—especially the integration of laboratory research—with which he had become acquainted in Germany, and these practices had a profound influence on the teaching of chemistry in the United States, particularly at the graduate level, until World War II. Remsen attracted a large number of students from both the United States and Europe during his teaching career.

In 1879 Remsen invited Constantine Fahlberg, who had taken the Ph.D. at Leipzig, to continue the study of the oxidation of substituted benzene rings. Remsen had shown that ortho groups could be oxidized by potassium permanganate, and Fahlberg, working in Remsen’s laboratory and at Remsen’s suggestion, oxidized onhotoluene sulfamide by potassium permanganate to produce orthobenzoyl sulfimide. Fahlberg found the compound, later named saccharin, to be intensely sweet, and with the help of A. List patented the process for commercial manufacture. Although Remsen apparently felt some initial grievance about Fahlberg’s behavior, he mastered his ill will and in 1907 acted impartially as head of the board appointed by Theodore Roosevelt to determine whether sodium benzoate (used as a food preservative) and saccharin were injurious to health.

Remsen founded, in 1879, the American Chemical Journal, the first continuing periodical devoted to American chemical research. He served as its chief editor until 1911, when it was incorporated into the Journal of the American Chemical Society. In 1887 he became secretary to the academic council of Johns Hopkins, and in 1901 he succeeded Gilman as president of the university. Despite the demands of his administrative duties, he remained as head of the chemistry laboratory until 1908. He retired as professor emeritus and president emeritus in 1913; he had previously refused to work for private firms (although he had taken active part in work for municipalities, notably Boston and Baltimore) but was then retained by Standard Oil as a laboratory consultant until his death in 1927. He was survived by his wife, Elizabeth Mallory Remsen, whom he had married in 1875, and by two sons; his ashes were placed in Remsen Hall at Johns Hopkins University.


I. Original Works. The Milton S. Eisenhower Library of Johns Hopkins University has more than 1,000 MS items by or related to Remsen. It also has several scrapbooks, including one entitled “Sewage Problems in Baltimore (1905–1912)” and another covering the resignation of Gilman from the university presidency and the subsequent installation of Remsen. The John Work Garrett Library at Johns Hopkins has a collection of Remsen’s medals and family memorabilia. MS material, chiefly letters, are scattered in other library collections, including the Edgar Fahs Smith collection at the University of Pennsylvania and the Lyman Churchill Newell collection in the chemistry department at Boston University, Remsen descendants hold others. E. Emmett Reid, formerly professor of organic chemistry at Johns Hopkins, assembled a scrapbook of personal recollections of Remsen recorded by the latter’s students.

II. Secondary Literature. The National Academy of Sciences devoted Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Sciences, 14 (1932), 207–257, to Remsen. In that compilation W. A. Noyes and J. F. Norris assembled a biography from their papers in Science, 66 (1927), 243–246; Journal of the Chemical Society (1927), 3182–3189; and Journal of the American Chemical Society. Proceedings (1928), 67–79. A bibliography of papers published by Remsen and by his students, of Remsen’s books, and of his addresses is repro. on 230–240 from Journal of the American Chemical Society, 50 (1928), 80.

Remsen’s biography in Dictionary of American Biography, XV, 500–502, is by W. A. Noyes. Frederick H. Getman, Life of Ira Remsen (Easton, Pa., 1940), synthesizes all of the above material and adds Getman’s own recollections of Remsen. The appendix lists some of Remsen’s publications and is an abridgment of that in Journal of the American Chemical Society (1928) listed above. A brief biography of Remsen, by Aaron Ihde, is in E. Farber, Great Chemists (New York, 1961), 819–822. A summary of documents concerning Remsen in government archives may be found in Current Literature, 52 (1912), 304–305.

J. Z. Fullmer

Remsen, Ira

views updated May 23 2018

Remsen, Ira


Most great chemists are remembered for their research. Ira Remsen, although he contributed significantly to the research of his time, is one of the few chemists remembered mainly for his teaching and mentorship. It was under his leadership that American chemical research came of age in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Remsen was born in New York City on February 10, 1846, into a family that traced its lineage back to seventeenth-century Dutch colonial settlers. In his early schooling, he excelled in the classics and had almost no exposure to science. He attended the New York Free Academy (later the City College of New York), but in accordance with his father's wishes, he left before graduation to become an apprentice to a homeopathic physician. He received an M.D. in 1867 from the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons. His prize-winning thesis, "The Fatty Degeneration of the Liver," was written on the basis of information Remsen gleaned from books without ever seeing a liver. His interest in chemistry had been awakened during medical school, and Remsen resolved upon graduation to further pursue his studies in that field of science.

At that time, there were no American schools that engaged in serious chemical research; the epicenter of the chemical world was Germany, and Remsen embarked for Munich to study under Justus Liebig, the most renowned scholar of the time. Unfortunately, Remsen learned upon his arrival in Munich that Liebig had stopped supervising students. There was, however, no shortage of excellent teachers there. Remsen remained in the German university system for five years, studying under Jacob Volhard, Friedrich Wöhler, and Rudolph Fittig. He received his Ph.D. from Göttingen in 1870 in the newly organized field of organic chemistry.

Upon returning to the United States, Remsen accepted an appointment as a professor of chemistry and physics at Williams College in Massachusetts. There, despite a lack of facilities or administrative encouragement, he managed to continue the research that he had started in Germany. Recognizing the lack of chemistry textbooks in English, he translated Wöhler's Outlines of Organic Chemistry and wrote the first of his eight textbooks, Principles of Theoretical Chemistry. The excellent quality of these books led to Remsen's appointment to the newly founded Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, the first institution in the United States devoted primarily to research. Remsen remained there for thirty-six years, first as professor of chemistry and later as its president (19011912). During his tenure, he established the distinctly German tradition of chemistry research that he had learned in his studies in that country.

The research carried out in Remsen's laboratories, although of less lasting import than his teaching, was significant in its time. These studies derived mostly from his earlier work and centered on the reactions of derivatives of substituted benzenes. The artificial sweetener saccharin was discovered, partially by accident, by one of his students. He was also noted for his clear and straightforward teaching style and for his devotion to his students. Under his tutelage, the first great generation of American academic chemists was established across the country.

In 1879 Remsen founded the American Chemical Journal in order both to promote the research being done at Johns Hopkins and elsewhere in the United States and to make this work widely available to American readers. It was the first American journal devoted to chemistry and quickly became recognized for its excellence both at home and abroad. It later merged with the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

Remsen retired in 1912 but remained active as a consultant to the chemical industry. He died on March 4, 1927, in Carmel, California. The next year his ashes were returned to Johns Hopkins and interred behind a bronze memorial tablet in the newly renamed Remsen Hall.

see also Liebig, Justus von; Wohler, Friedrich.

Bartow Culp


Corwin, Alsoph H. (1976). "Ira Remsen." In The Robert A. Welch Foundation Conferences on Chemical Research, Vol. 20, Chap. 4. Easton, PA: American Chemical Society.

Hannaway, Owen (1976). "The German Model of Chemical Education in America: Ira Remsen at Johns Hopkins (18761913)." Ambix 23: 145164.

Noyes, William A. (19281936). "Ira Remsen." In Dictionary of American Biography Base Set. New York: American Council of Learned Societies. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Detroit: Gale Group. Also available from <>.

Noyes, William A., and Norris, James F. (1932). "Ira Remsen." Biographical Memoirs National Academy of Sciences 14: 207257.