Armstrong, Henry Edward

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Armstrong, Henry Edward

(b. Lewisham, London, England, 6 May 1848; d. Lewisham, 13 July 1937)

chemistry, science education.

Armstrong entered the Royal College of Chemistry, London, in 1865. Here he studied with A.W. Hofmann, then in his last year in Britain, and John Tyndal, whose lectures greatly impressed him. In his third year he started research under Sir Edward Frankland, at whose suggestion he went to Leipzig to study under Hermann Kolbe. He was awarded the Ph.D. in 1870 and returned to London in that year to start his lifelong career in research and teaching. Armstrong’s first positions were largely “bread and butter” ones: teaching combined with research, often under primitive conditions. His first paper to the Chemical Society of London, “On the Formation of Sulpho-Acids,” was submitted in 1870. In 1884 he became professor of chemistry at the then new Central Institution, South Kensington, which merged with the Imperial College of Science and Technology in 1907. He retired from teaching in 1911.

Armstrong had a very vigorous mind and independent spirit, which, coupled with great breadth of interests and personal drive, enabled him to assume leadership in the development of technological chemistry in Great Britain. He became a fellow of the Royal Society of London when only twenty-eight, and he served the Chemical Society of London as secretary, president, and vice-president. He had an extraordinary impact on his contemporaries, his accomplishments and influence being such that between 1890 and 1935 he was regarded as the doyen of British chemists. Armstrong’s mission was to advance chemistry in order to improve society, and he carried it out with the fervor of a prophet. His published papers, many written with students, totaled more than 250. He did pioneer work on the structure of benzene, devising the centric formula independently of Baeyer, and his work with W.P. Wynne on the structure and reactions of naphthalene helped establish the dye industry. Many of his papers were concerned with the quinonoid theory for the color of organic compounds, the reactions of camphor and terpenes, and the mechanism of enzyme reactions.

Armstrong’s views were often prophetic. He was among the first to base instruction and writing in chemistry upon Mendeleev’s periodic table, and he early emphasized that molecules must have spatial configurations that determine crystal structures. His researches in crystallography were significant and antedated X-ray diffraction methods.

The vigor of Armstrong’s advocacy of unorthodox views at times caused intense controversy and often made enemies. On the basis of the unique properties of water and the hypothetical structure of water molecules, he castigated and ridiculed the theories of Arrhenius, van’t Hoff, and Ostwald because they ignored the solvent and complex character of water. He believed that the process of solution of electrolytes had to consider and include the unique properties of water. Thus, his ideas and researches were an important step toward the present concepts of ion complexes and ion atmospheres in aqueous solutions of electrolytes.

He was the first to devise curricula to relate chemistry and engineering, and he came to be regarded as the father of chemical engineering. Armstrong helped organize the Education Section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and served as its president in 1902. He vigorously opposed the didactic method of teaching and championed the view that the best method of teaching science was experimental. Appointed to the Committee on Management for Rothamsted Experiment Station at Harpenden, Armstrong served the rest of his life as member, vice-chairman, or chairman of this committee. Here his guidance and vision in the application of chemistry and scientific procedures to the problems of agriculture did much to advance this basic economic activity.

In 1877 Armstrong married Frances Louisa Lavers of Plumstead, Kent, who bore him four sons and three daughters. His eldest son, Edward Frankland, achieved prominence as an industrial chemist.

During his long career Armstrong’s zeal and pioneering spirit brought him acknowledged leadership in many areas of organic research, in science and technical education, and in agriculture. But in the minds of his colleagues his chief contribution to chemistry was the teaching and inspiration of his many distinguished pupils.


1. Original Works. Armstrong’s most important books are The Teaching of the Scientific Method and Other Papers on Education (London, 1903, 1925)and The Art and Principles of Chemistry (London, 1927). His first paper to the Chemical Society was “On the Formation of SulphoAcids,” in Journal of the Chemical Society of London (1871), p. 173.

II. Secondary Literature. J. Vargas Eyre, Henry Edward Armstrong 1848-1937 (London, 1958), a biography by a former colleague and intimate, gives titles and journal sources for many of Armsrtong’s papers on benzene, naphthalene, crystallography, enzymes, and electrolytes. Many of these papers were influential. For example, his sixty papers on laws of substitution in naphthalene materially helped to establish naphthalene chemistry and the dye industry. A long and very detailed obituary notice is “Henry Edward Armstrong,” in Journal of the Chemical Society of London (1940), p. 1418.

Conrad E. Ronneberg

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Armstrong, Henry Edward

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