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Anderson, Thomas

Anderson, Thomas

(b, Leith, Scotland, 2 July 1819; d. Chiswick, England, 2 November 1874)

organic chemistry.

The son of a physician in Leith, Anderson was educated at the high school there and at Edinburgh Academy. He then studied medicine at Edinburgh University, graduating in 1841. The subject of his doctoral thesis, the chemical changes accompanying nutrition and other physiological processes, shows the direction his interests were to take. He studied under Berzelius in Stockholm in 1842 and in the following year worked in Liebig’s laboratory in Giessen; after visiting other European centers of chemical and medical research, he returned to Edinburgh. In 1845 he became a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and in the following year he began lecturing in the extramural medical school in Edinburgh. When Thomas Thomson died in 1852, Anderson succeeded him as professor of chemistry at Glasgow, and in the same year he married Mary Barclay.

All Anderson’s important work was done in the field of organic chemistry, but in addition to his pure research, he carried out numerous analyses of soils, manures, and cattle foods. As chemist to the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland, he examined the composition of wheat, beans, and turnips at various stages of growth, and the results were published in the Society’s Journal over a period of twenty-five years. He also published a treatise on agricultural chemistry in 1860. His work was virtually brought to an end in 1869 by serious illness, and his last few years were marred by paralysis, deafness, and occasional delirium.

In Anderson’s first important paper, read in 1846, he described how, on examining a mixture of bases derived from coal tar, he had found a minute quantity of pyrrole (discovered twelve years before by Runge) and, in attempting to separate it, had been led to the discovery of a new base, which he called picoline and found to be an isomer of aniline.

This was the first discovered member of the pyridine series of bases, and in a group of researches on the products of the distillation of bone oil (1848–1868) Anderson found pyridine itself and its methyl derivatives. In his first paper on these researches he described how, from 300 pounds of bone oil, he obtained less than two pounds of basic substances and, on distillation, found picoline and a substance he called petinine in the two most volatile fractions.

In subsequent researches Anderson realized that he was working with too little material, and he eventually distilled about 250 gallons of bone oil. Finding methylamine and propylamine, and possibly ethylamine, he concluded that his petinine was in fact butylamine—thus finding this substance shortly before Wurtz did. After the discovery of pyridine, lutidine, and collidine, in that order, he came to the conclusion that these new bases formed a homologous series and that they were derived “from ammonia by the replacement of its three atoms of hydrogen by as many different radicals” (“On the Products...” [1857], p.230). The modern ring formula for pyridine was first published by Dewar in 1872.

Among his other researches, Anderson carried out a detailed investigation of codeine and other constituents of opium, in the course of which he elucidated the composition of a number of alkaloids; he also found the true constitution of anthracene.

Anderson was a painstaking worker and possessed considerable manipulative skill; the exposition of his results is marked by extreme lucidity.


Anderson’s major treatise was Elements of Agricultural Chemistry (Edinburgh, 1860). Most of his papers are listed in The Royal Society Catalogue of Scientific Papers, I (1867), 64–65. His papers on the pyridine bases are “On the Constitution and Properties of Picoline, a New Organic Base From Coal Tar,” in Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 16 (1849), 123–136; and “On the Products of the Destructive Distillation of Animal Substances,” ibid., 463–474; 20 (1853), 247–260; 21 (1857), 219–233, 571–595; and 25 (1869), 205–216.

An article on Anderson is E.J. Mills’s obituary notice in Journal of the Chemical Society, 28 (1875), 1309–1313.

E. L. Scott

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