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Thorpe, Thomas Edward


(b. Barnes Green, Harpurhey, near Manchester, England, 8 December 1845; d. Salcombe, England, 23 February 1925)

chemistry, history of science.

Thorpe was the son of George Thorpe, a cotton merchant, and Mary Wilde. He received his early education in Manchester and in 1863 entered Owens College, Manchester, as a chemistry student under Roscoe’s guidance. Much of his four years at Owens College was spent as Roscoe’s private assistant, and he participated in the classical work on vanadium (which resulted in determining its true atomic weight) and on the percentage of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

After graduation Thorpe worked with Bunsen at the University of Heidelberg, where he received his doctorate. He then went to Bonn, where he studied ethyihenzoic acid with Kekulé. In 1870 he became professor of chemistry at the Andersonian College, Glasgow. Four years later he was appointed professor of chemistry at the new Yorkshire College of Science at Leeds. He resigned this post in 1885 in order to become Edward Frankland’s successor at the Royal College of Science in London, which later became the Imperial College of Science and Technology. Between 1894 and 1909 he was director of the government laboratories, responsible for design and equipment. He returned to Imperial College in 1909 but resigned three years later.

Best known for his numerous textbooks and histories of chemistry, Thorpe was also an important figure in inorganic chemical research. His doctoral dissertation on the oxychlorides of chromium and sulfur led to a study of similar phosphorus compounds, resulting in the discovery of thiophosphoryl chloride (PSCI3), phosphoryl fluoride (POF3), and phosphorus pentafluoride (PF5). This last discovery was of particular importance, since it necessitated postulating a valence of five for phosphorus. His atomic weight determinations of silicon and gold were the most accurate at the time for those elements. He also determined the weights of titanium, strontium, and radium. He carried out extensive studies of the critical temperatures, viscosities, and molecular volumes of liquids. His investigation of the vapor density of hydrofluoric acid revealed that at lower temperatures it is polymerized.


I. Original Works. Thorpe is most remembered for the large number of popular textbooks he wrote. Most of the following went through several editions: A Dictionary of Applied Chemistry, 3 vols. (London, 1893); the 3rd ed. (1921–1927), which he was preparing until a few days before his death, contained 7 vols. His other chemistry books were A Manual of Inorganic Chemistry, 2 vols. (London, 1898); Qualitative Chemical Analysis and Laboratory Practice, 8th ed. (London, 1894), written with M. M. Pattison Muir; Coal, Its History and Uses (London, 1879); and A Series of Chemical Problems With Key (London, 1907), written with W. Tate.

Thorpe’s interest in the history of chemistry led to two books: Essays in Historical Chemistry (London, 1894, 1923) and History of Chemistry (London, 1909–1910, 1924). In addition he published the following short biographical sketches: Humphry Davy, Poet and Philosopher (London, 1901); Joseph Priestley (London, 1906); and The Right Honorable Sir Henry Enfield Roscoe (London, 1916). After his retirement he enjoyed yachting and wrote two books about his experiences: The Seine From Havre to Paris (London, 1913) and A Yachtsman’s Guide to the Dutch Waterways (London, 1915). His published papers are listed in Poggendorff, III , 1345; IV , 1499: V , 1255.

II. Secondary Literature. A detailed obituary notice is P. P. Bedson, “Sir Edward Thorpe,” in Journalof the Chemical Society, (1926), 1031–1050. See also the Dictionary of National Biography 1922–1930, pp. 842–843.

Sheldon J. Kopperl

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