Kane, Robert John

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Kane, Robert John

(b. Dublin, Irland, 24 Setember 1809; d. Dublin, 16 February 1890)


Kene’s father was a Dublin chemical manufacturer, and the son’s exposure to this business nurtured in him a precocious interest in chemistry. While still a schoolboy, Kane attended the lectures of the Royal Dublin Society and, when only twenty years old, described the natural arsenide of manganese, which was named Kaneite in his honor.

Kane also had an early interest in medicine; in 1829 he became a licentiate of the Apothecaries’ Hall, where in 1831 he became professor of chemistry. In 1829 he also enrolled at Trinity College, Dublin, from which he received his B.A. in 1835. He published the Elements of Practical Pharmacy and founded the Dublin Journal of Medical and Chemical Science.

In 1834 Kane became lecturer (and subsequently professor) of natural philosophy at the Royal Dublin Society. He retained the post until 1847 and during this period carried out much research. In 1836 he spent three months at Liebig’s laboratory at Giessen, where he isolated acetone from wood spirit; in the following year he transformed this compound into a ring compound, which he called mesitylene. The significance of this reaction was not realized at the time. For his work on the metallic compounds of ammonia and on the chemical history of archil and litmus, he received medals from the Royal Irish Academy and the Royal Society of London. His writing also prospered. In 1840 he was appointed an editor of the Philosophical Magazine, and in 1840-1841 he published in three parts his Elements of Chemistry, which was successful in both Great Britain and America.

In 1844 Kane published Industrial Resources of Ireland and in the following year was appointed director of the newly formed Museum of Economic Geology in Dublin. Under his guidance the museum evolved into the Royal College of Science for Ireland. Other appointments and honors followed. In 1845 Kane became president of Queen’s College, Cork; in 1846 he was knighted; and in 1849 he became a fellow of the Royal Society of London. Because of the burden of administrative work his research lapsed, but he retained the editorship of the Philosophical Magazine until his death.


I. Original Works. A comprehensive list of Kane’s work is in the Royal Society Catalogue of Scientific Papers. These include Elements of Practical Pharmacy (Dublin, 1831); “Research on the Combinations Derived From Pyroacetic Spirit,” in Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, 1 (1837), 42-44; “On the Chemical History of Archil and Litmus,” in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 130 (1840), 173-324; Elements of Chemistry (Dublin, 1841); and Industrial Resources of Ireland (Dublin, 1844).

II. Secondary Literature. For biographical treatment of Kane see D. Reilly, Sir Robert kane (Cork, 1942); and “Robert John Kane (1809-1890), Irish Chemist and Educator,” in Journal of Chemical Education, 32 (1955), 404-406; T. S. Wheeler, “Sir Robert Kane,” in Endeavour, 4 (1945), 91-93; and B. B. Kelham, “Royal Collage of Science for Ireland,” in Studies, 56 (1967), 297-309.

Brian B. Kelham