Smithells, Arthur

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(b. Bury, Lancashire, England. 24 May 1860; d. Highgate, London, England, 8 February 1939)


Smithells was an articulate spokesman for chemistry, chemical education, and the larger cultural dimensions of chemistry. His research contributed to the understanding of combustion and the structure of flames.

Smithells was the third son of James Smithells, a railway manager, and Martha Livesey. From 1875 to 1877 he studied physics and chemistry under Kelvin and Ferguson at the University of Glasgow, where he developed an abiding interest in the latter. Then, for the next five years, he studied chemistry under Roscoe and Schorlemmer at Owens College in Manchester. He received the B.Sc. in 1881 from the University of London and then became an “Associate” of Owens College until 1882, when he went to Munich to pursue his studies in chemistry with Baeyer and then to Heidelberg to study with Bunsen. The following year he returned to Manchester as assistant lecturer in chemistry. In 1885. at the age of only twenty-five, he succeeded T. E. Thorpe as professor of chemistry at the University of Leeds.

Smithells discovered a method for separating the two cones of the flame of a Bunsen burner and found that the inner cone contains residual hydrogen. Since it had been thought previously that hydrogen was burned preferentially. Smithells’ discovery led to further investigations in combustion. He also conducted extensive research into the structure of flames and the luminosity of gases, but this work was inhibited by his administrative duties.

  • In 1901 Smithells was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, and in 1918 he was made a companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George for his skilled organization of antigas training. He was also involved in educational reform: he strongly opposed specialized universities and advocated the integration of pure and applied science in the university curriculum. He also wished to extend science to the practical problems of daily life.

In 1907 Smithells was elected president of the chemistry section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. In his presidential address he stressed the importance of atomic research and of the new investigations prompted by the discovery of radioactivity. Because of these scientific developments, the chemist, whose work had previously been “confined to comparatively gross quantities of matter,” was called upon to examine and reinterpret earlier theories concerning the ultimate constituents of matter.

In 1923 Smithells resigned his chair at Leeds and moved to London, where, as director of Salters’ Institute of Industrial Chemistry, he was influential in admitting students of chemistry. He retired in 1937, two years before his death.


I. Originai Works. Many of Smithells’ scientific works are listed in the Royal Society Catalogue of Scientific Papers18 , p. 820. His major works are “The Structure and Chemistry of Flames,” in Journal of the Chemical Society, 61 (1892), 204–216, written with H. Ingle; and “The Electrical Conductivity and Luminosity of Flames Containing Vaporised Salts,” in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 193A (1900), 89–128, written with H. M. Dawson and H. A. Wilson, His address to the British Association appeared in Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science(1907), 469–479; he also published a collection of his addresses in From a Modern University (Oxfad, 1921), Smithells edited Schorlemmer’s. The Rise and Development of Organic Chemistry, 2nd ed. (London, 1894).

An autobiographical letter dated 2 May 1893 exists to the Krause Album, IV, MSS 7766, Sondersammlungen, Bibliothek. Deutsches Museum, Munich. MacLeod, Archives, indicates that many of his papers are held by Professor Phillip Smithells. 2 Pollock St., Maori Hill, Dunedin, New Zealand. There are several items in the Royal Institution, Imperial College, and at the University of Leeds.

II. Secondary Literature. Smithells’ former student J. W. Cobb wrote “Professor A, Smithells, CM.G. F.R.S.,” in Nature, 143 (1939), 321–322. He also wrote the article in the Dictionary of National Biographt 1931–1940. 820–821, and one in Journal of the Chemical Society (July 1939), 1234–1236. H. S. Raper, another student, wrote the article in Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society, 8 (1940), 97–107. An anonymous note appeared in The Animal Register (1939), 428.

Thaddeus J. Trenn

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Smithells, Arthur

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