Roscoe, Henry Enfield

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(b. London, England, 7 January 1833; d. Leatherhead, Surrey, England, 18 December 1915)


Roscoe was the son of Henry Roscoe, a Liverpool barrister and judge. He was educated at the high school of the Liverpool Institute, where his interest in chemistry and natural philosophy was awakened by W. H. Balmain, who provided a chemical laboratory for the boys. Roscoe fitted up a room in his house at Liverpool, in which lie performed experiments and gave illustrated lectures to his cousins and friends.

In 1848 Roscoe, a Dissenter, entered University College, London, where lie studied chemistry with Thomas Graham. He decided upon chemistry as a career and at the beginning of his second session at University College affiliated with the Birkbeck Chemical Laboratory under A. W. Williamson, who soon set him to work at original investigation and who chose him as his private assistant. Roscoe took his B.A. degree in 1853 and chose to continue his chemical studies at Heidelberg, with Bunsen, who trained him in quantitative techniques and gas analysis and encouraged him in original researches, some of which appeared in Justus Liebigs Annalen der Chemie (1854).

Roscoe received his Ph.D. by oral examination “six months after I first went to Heidelberg.” He returned there in the fall of 1855 and began joint work with Bunsen on the chemical action of light. When Williamson was appointed Graham’s successor as professor of chemistry in 1855, he appointed Roscoe to the post of lecture assistant. Roscoe returned to University College, London, for the winter session of 1855–1856, bringing with him W. Dittmar as his private assistant, to aid him in his researches.

In London, like many other chemists, Roscoe had to juggle several positions to scratch out a career. He taught chemistry at an army school; was a consultant to a government committee on ventilation that was determining the amount of carbon dioxide in various enclosed places; and attempted to develop a private consulting laboratory. When, however, the chair of chemistry at Owens College in Manchester, recently vacated by Edward Frankland, was advertised in the summer of 1857, Roscoe applied for the position, supported by testimonials from Bunsen, Liebig, Williamson, and Graham. There were fifteen applicants, including Robert Angus Smith and Frederick Crace-Calvert; but Roscoe was selected at an annual salary of £150 plus fees. He took up his new duties as soon as he was able to close his London laboratory and make arrangements in Manchester.

Owing to its local unpopularity, the college was almost at the point of extinction. The Manchester Guardian had pronounced the Owens experiment a “mortifying failure,” and Roscoe was even refused lodgings in town when the landlord learned of his affiliation. There were only thirty-four students, of whom fifteen worked in the chemical laboratory. Roscoe set about altering the situation by demonstrating to the community the potential of Owens College to aid the economic life of the region. With the new principal, J. G. Greenwood, he prodded the college toward a greater emphasis upon science and what were considered practical subjects. Roscoe was instrumental in bringing Robert Clifton (later professor at Oxford) to teach natural philosophy and, by revising the chemical curriculum, was able to build a reputation for sound chemical teaching and for developing research students. Steadily, over a period of twenty-five years, he convinced manufacturers of the necessity for chemical training at Owens. In the short run the results were dramatic: by 1863 the number of day students at Owens had risen to 110, including 38 in the chemical laboratory.

Part of Roscoe’s success must be laid to his active role in the city’s scientific community. He joined and ultimately became an officer of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society; and during the cotton scarcity beginning in 1862, he was instrumental in organizing evening cultural events, including science lectures by himself. The success of these first attempts spurred Roscoe to expand his efforts along similar lines; and in 1866 he instituted Science Lectures for the People, which were given for eleven years by such luminaries as Huxley, William Carpenter, William Spottiswoode, Tyndall, and Huggins. The lectures were published and sold widely for a penny.

Roscoe’s local reputation was further enhanced by his services as civic expert; he performed, for example, numerous analyses for local gas and water boards. He served the national government as well, both as consultant and as royal commissioner, on the Commission on Noxious Vapours (1876) and the Commission on Technical Instruction (1881). In the decade following his service, he lobbied extensively for technical education, his efforts bearing fruit in the Technical Instruction Act of 1889.

Without question, however, Roscoe’s historical importance lay squarely in his great success as teacher and founder of what became known as the Manchester school of chemistry. While the debt to Bunsen is considerable and abundantly acknowledged, much of the character, style, and success of Roscoe’s chemical school must be attributed to his own talent for organization and to the exigencies of regional requirements and support.

Like Bunsen, Roscoe began the working day with lecturing; then, after some time in his office attending to correspondence and permitting the students to commence their laboratory work, he made his rounds, counseling the young men, giving directions, and assessing their progress. The program for students began with the elementary laboratory, intended to inculcate the principles of method and accuracy in both practical work and theory. The advanced students continued with quantitative analysis, closely supervised by the professor and the demonstrators; Roscoe insisted that even students intended for chemical works in which the processes were admittedly cruder should be thoroughly trained in the “exacter processes.” Finally, certain advanced students were encouraged, by precept and example, to embark upon original research; during Roscoe’s thirty years at Owens, students and demonstrators published over 120 original papers, a record unequaled in Great Britain. The very best students were sent to Germany to complete their training.

Roscoe responded to the increasing specialization of chemistry in a creative way unmatched in Britain. He chose for his assistants and demonstrators men of unusual ability and worth, and permitted them to follow their special interests, ensuring that institutional flexibility would encourage them further. Carl Schorlemmer, his assistant, was named professor of organic chemistry in 1874, the first—and for many years the sole—professor of that subject in Great Britain. Assistant lecturers were employed for thermal chemistry, gas analysis, crystallography, and advanced organic chemistry; and lectureships in technological chemistry and metallurgy were introduced in 1885.

The results of these efforts were striking. Unquestionably, Owens College (later Victoria University) became, under Roscoe’s tutelage, the leading chemistry school in Britain, providing staff for numerous academic and industrial enterprises. Students of Owens College went on to teach at Owens itself and at many of the new institutions for higher education in Britain and the colonies.

Roscoe’s own researches, wide-ranging and of considerable number, centered largely upon inorganic chemistry. His first important work, on the laws of photochemical action, was undertaken jointly with Bunsen and lasted from 1855 to 1862. Investigating the gradual combination of chlorine and hydrogen under light, they demonstrated that the amount of photochemical action produced by a constant source varies inversely as the square of the distance and that the absorption varies directly as the intensity. They also measured the chemical action of the parts of the solar spectrum, describing the existence of several maximums of chemical intensity.

Roscoe’s most important original researches concerned the metal vanadium. On a visit to Cheshire copper mines in 1865, he learned of the presence of the rare metal there and was able to prepare oxides of vanadium on which lie and his assistant T. E. Thorpe began work. Roscoe demonstrated that Berzelius had been incorrect in viewing vanadium as analogous to chromium (Roscoe pointed to its relationship to the phosphorus-arsenic group) and had set the atomic weight too high. Berzelius had, lie showed, conflated the oxychloride with the trichloride. Roscoe was the first to prepare the metal itself in a pure form by reducing the dichloride. Additional work on vanadium was completed under his direction by senior students at Owens.

In his own lifetime it was recognized that Roscoe’s pedagogical publications carried even greater weight than his original researches. His Lessons in Elementary Chemistry (1866) and Chemistry in the Science Primer Series for Macmillan (1872), classics of their type, were widely adopted and were translated into nine languages. His substantial Treatise on Chemistry, the success of which largely depended upon his coauthor Schorlemmer, appeared in 1877–1884. Through his translation of Bunsen and Kirchhoff’s classic work on spectrum analysis (Chemische Analyse durch Spectralbeobachtungen) and through his lectures, Roscoe was instrumental in calling attention to the new and revolutionary subject. His lectures before the Society of Apothecaries, published as Spectrum Analysis (1869), went through several editions, the last amply augmented by Arthur Schuster. Roscoe also contributed to the history of chemistry a popular life of Dalton and A New View of the Origin of Dalton’s Atomic Theory (1896), a classic reevaluation of the atomic theory, written with Arthur Harden.

Roscoe was active in numerous scientific organizations and served several as an officer. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1863 and was subsequently elected to the Council and vice-presidency; he was president of the chemical section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1870 and 1884, and president of the entire Association at its Manchester meeting in 1887; he was elected president of the Chemical Society in 1881 and was a founder-member and first president of the Society of Chemical Industry in 1881.

Roscoe was always closely concerned with the chemical industry, both in the capacity of consultant while at Owens and later as an industrialist himself, although these areas are curiously omitted from his autobiography. He was associated with the Aluminium Company of Oldbury and London as early as 1889 and was chosen a board member when the company was reconstituted as the Castner-Kellner Alkali Company, Ltd., in 1895. Even his researches on vanadium were spurred by the promise of industrial application. He wrote to Bunsen in 1876, for example, that “a friend of mine has made about 200 kilos of pure Vanadic acid! I spent £6,000 on it! The best of the thing is that Vanadium will turn out to be a most valuable substance for Calico-Printers and Dyers—as by its means an aniline-black can be prepared which is far superior to that obtained with copper salts.” After 1876 “vanadium blacks” became widely used but were found not to stand washing as well as blacks obtained with copper salts.

In 1884 Roscoe was knighted for his services on behalf of technical education. In the following year he was pressed to stand for election to Parliament for the upper-middle-class district of South Manchester and served as a Liberal member of Parliament from 1885 until his defeat in the election of 1895. In 1896 he became vice-chancellor of the University of London, which position lie held until 1902. He was instrumental in the founding and direction of what is now the Lister Institute in Chelsea, modeled upon the Institut Pasteur in Paris, and served as a Carnegie trustee after 1901. In 1909 he was selected for the Privy Council.


I. Original Works. Roscoe’s major books include Lessons in Elementary Chemistry (London, 1866; 7th ed., enl., 1906); Spectrum Analysis (London, 1869; 4th ed., with A. Schuster, 1885); Chemistry (London, 1872); Record of Work Done in the Chemical Department of the Owens College (Manchester, 1887); Inorganic Chemistry for Beginners (London, 1893; 2nd ed., 1912); John Dalton and the Rise of Modern Chemistry (London, 1895); and The Life and Experiences of Sir Henry Enfield Roscoe, D.C.L., LL.D., F.R.S. (London, 1906).

With Arthur Harden he wrote A New View of the Origin of Dalton’s Atomic Theory (London, 1896); and Inorganic Chemistry for Advanced Students (London, 1899; 2nd ed., 1910). With Carl Schorlemmer he wrote A Treatise on Chemistry, 3 vols., (London 1877–1884).

Roscoe wrote a large number of scientific papers individually and jointly with colleagues and students; these are listed in the Royal Society Catalogue of Scientific Papers, V, 273–274; VIII, 778–779; X1, 216–217; XVIII, 291. There are MSS at the University of Manchester, correspondence at the Chemical Society, London, and scrapbooks at the John Rylands Library, Manchester. Letters to and from Roscoe can also be found in the Bunsen collection at Heidelberg.

II. Secondary Literature. The standard biography is still T. E. Thorpe’s The Right Honourable Sir Henry Enfield Roscoe (London, 1916). Thorpe also contributed a long éloge to Proceedings of the Royal Society, 93 (1916), i-xxi. See also H. B. Dixon’s sketch in Dictionary of National Biography and the obituaries by Francis Jones and A. W. Waters in Memoirs and Proceedings of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, 60 (1916), lii-lxiii. G. N. Burkhardt, “Schools of Chemistry in Great Britain and Ireland-XIII: The University of Manchester,” in Journal of the Royal Institute of Chemistry, 78 (Sept. 1954), 448–460, discusses the Roscoe-Schorlemmer period. On technical education, see D. Thompson, “The Influence of Sir H. E. Roscoe on the Development of Scientific and Technical Education During the Second Half of the 19th Century“(M.Ed. thesis, Univ. of Leeds, 1957–1958). On Roscoe at Owens, see E. Fiddes, Chapters in the History of Owens College and of Manchester University 1851–1914 (Manchester, 1937); H. B. Charlton, Portrait of a University 1851–1951 (Manchester, 1951); P. J. Hartog, The Owens College Manchester (London, 1900); and J. Thompson, The Owens College, Its Foundation and Growth (Manchester, 1886).

Robert H. Kargon