Schunck, Henry Edward

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(b. Manchester, England, 16 August 1820; d. Kersal, near Manchester, 13 January 1903)

organic chemistry.

Schunck was of German descent, his father having settled in Manchester as the founder of the firm Schunck, Mylius and Co., textile merchants and calico-printers: his mother was a daughter of Johann Mylius. He was educated privately and received his first instruction in practical chemistry in th laboratory of William Henry, a family friend. He then studied under Heinrich Rose and H. G. Magnus at Berlin, and with Liebig at Giessen, before returning about 1842 to enter his father’s printing works at Rochdale. After a few years, however, his increasing wealth enabled him to detach himself from the day-to-day management of the firm and to devote himself to research, mainly on the chemistry of the natural coloring matters.

Soon after returning to England, Schunck published the results of his work on the isolation and analysis of a pure crystalline compound (lecanorin) from the lichens that furnished the old dyestuffs archil and cudbear and the indicator litmus. Later (1847) he isolated the glycoside rubian, the precursor of alizarin in madder root, and studied other colored substances that accompany it. In 1853 he isolated the colorless precursor of indigo; this was indican, later shown to be a glycoside of indoxyl, which forms indigo as a result of oxidative hydrolysis in the dyebath.

Although a skillful and painstaking practical chemist and analyst, Schunck had little interest in theory. It was only while Hermann Roemer was serving as his assistant (1875–1879) that he began to relate his analyses to structural formulas. He and Roemer made important contributions to the study of the polyhydroxy anthraquinones, which were then becoming available synthetically; and they were among the first to use absorption spectroscopy as a tool for the identification of colored compounds. Later, assisted by Leon Marchlewski, Schunck made extensive studies of chlorophyll and its congeners, again using absorption spectroscopy. This problem was so difficult, however, that they achieved little, except to demonstrate a chemical relationship between chlorophyll and hemoglobin. Schunck’s son Charles also participated in this work.

Although Schunck never held an academic post, he was the leading figure in the scientific life of Manchester for fifty years. He was four times president of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, one of the earliest members of the Chemical Society, and a founder-member (later president) of the Society of Chemical Industry. He was elected fellow of the Royal Society in 1850. Shortly before his death he gave Manchester University the then huge sum of £20,000 for the endowment of research. His laboratory—reputedly the best private laboratory in the world—and his extensive library were bequeathed to the University, to which they were moved. He married in 1850 and had seven children, of whom only four survived him.


I. Original Works. Schunck and his assistants wrote nearly 100 papers. Of special interest is his address to the British Association, in Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, 57 (1887), 624–635, expressing the opinion that the future of organic chemistry lay in the elucidation of biological processes; and his presidential address to the Society of Chemical Industry, in Journal of the Society of Chemical Industry, 17 (1897), 586–594, in which he recalls the scientific personalities of Manchester in his younger days.

II. Secondary Literature. There are notices on Schunck in Manchester Faces and Places, IX (1898), 1–6, with portrait; and in Dictionary of National Biography, 1901–1911, 274–275. The main obituaries are in Memoirs and Proceedings of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, 47 (1902–1903), xlix-liii; Berichte der Deutschen chemischen Gesellschaft, 36 (1903), 305; Journal of the Society of Chemical Industry, 22 (1903), 84; Journal of the Society of Dyers and Colourists, 19 (1903), 35–36, with portrait; Nature, 67 (1903), 274; and Proceedings of the Royal Society, 75 (1904–1905), 261–264. A short Chemical Researches of Edward Schunck... .,” in Memories and Proceedings of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, 47 , no. 6 (1902–1903), 1–8.

For an obituary, see Berichte der Deutschen chemischen Gesellschaft, 18 (1885), 285–289.

W. V. Farrar