Wanklyn, James Alfred

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(b. Ashton-under-Lyne, Lancashire, England, 18 February 1834; d. New Malden, Surrey [now part of London], England, 19 July 1906), organic and analytical chemistry, public health.

Wanklyn’s career followed that of Edward Frankland, who until 1867 did everything possible to further it—but thereafter much to block it. Wanklyn was the son of Thomas Wanklyn and Ann Dakeyne. After, education at the Moravian school in Fairfield, Lancashire, from 1843 until 1849, he was apprenticed for seven years to a Manchester doctor. During the last year of his apprenticeship he was allowed to study chemistry at Owens College, Manchester, with Frankland, whose personal assistant he became in 1856. From 1857 to 1859 Wanklyn studied at Heidelberg with Frankland’s former teacher Robert Bunsen; and through Frankland’s influence he became Lyon Playfair’s demonstrator at Edinburgh University in 1859. Wanklyn settled in London in 1863 and until 1870 was professor of chemistry at the financially impoverished London Institution—the Roayl Institution’s rival in the City of London. In 1886, after various often stormy engagements as public analyst to Buckingham and its county, Peterborough, Shrewsbury, and High Wycombe, and a lectureship in chemistry and physics at St. George’s Hospital, London, from 1877 to 1880, he established a private analytical laboratory and consultancy at New Maiden, where he died.

Although Wanklyn, according to Liebig, gained a European reputation for his research on organic synthesis, vapor densities, and qualitative analysis, like J. W. L. Thudichum, whom he assisted in 1869, was ignored and despised by British academic chemists, Blackballed by the Royal Society, he ostentatiously resigned from the Chemical Society in 1871 and, in 1876, from the Society of Public Analysts, of which he had been a founder in 1874. His only honor (engineered by Thudichum and Liebig) was corresponding membership in the Bavarian Academy of Sciences (1869). (Liebig diplomatically awarded Frankland the honor simultaneously.) Wanklyn’s faults were excessive haste to publish and a pugnacious nature (he was involved in several lawsuits); but foremost was his tactless and indomitable controversy with Frankland over water analysis—one of the great Victorian scientific debates that had national implications for public health and that led, in Wanklyn’s view, to persecution “for the sake of truth.”

As a protégé of Frankland’s, Wanklyn was until 1867 concerned principally with synthetic organic chemistry. In 1857 he prepared the organometallic compounds sodium ethyl and potassium ethyl, from which, with carbon dioxide, he synthesized propionic acid (1858), thus apparently confirming the structural views of Kolbe and Frankland that carboxylic acids were alkyl-conjugated oxalic acids. For instances,


sodium carbon sodium propionate (C=6) ethyl dioxide

At Edinburgh, Wanklyn improved the Will-Varrentrapp method for estimating organic nitrogen as ammonia by adding alkaline potassium permanganate to increase the oxidative effect of soda lime. In 1866 he began collaborating with the ebullinet Ernest Theophron Chapman, who, in a short but brilliant career, shared this interest in organic oxidation. At the London Institution, with Miles H. Smith, they devised a new method for detecting the organic impurity, or sewage, content of water (1867). After free ammonia had been boiled off from a water sample, it was oxidized by alkaline potassium permanganate, and the ammonia evolved (which was estimated colorimetrically with Nessler’s reagent) was asserted to be a measure of the organic nitrogen content of the water. This “albuminoid ammonia process” was much simpler and faster than the extremely laborious, albeit more accurate, method promulgated by Frankland and H. E. Armstrong (1867), which analyzed evaporated water residues in vacuo.

The debates over these two methods had serious consequences for both parties, especially for Wanklyn, who supposed, with some evidence, that Frankland used his government position as an analyst of London’s water supplies to promote his own, more complex technique. Wanklyn’s method tended to underestimate nitrogen content and therefore to underemphasize possible sewage contamination. Hence samples of water from the same supplies often were reported as more salubrious by Wanklyn than by Frankland, who wished to use his results to ensure government action on the purification of water supplies. If Frankland’s attitude was politically and socially profitable, his methods were certainly too complex analytically for ordinary public health analysts, who adopted the Wanklyn method. On the other hand, both the analysts and Frankland were prepared to accept bacteriological evidence for insalubrity; whereas Wanklyn, blinded by prejudice, saw this as another of Frankland’s “plots.” Nevertheless, despite his jaundiced views, Wanklyn’s practical manuals on various analytical subjects proved invaluable in training and setting standards for the professional British public health analyst and medical officer of health.


I. Original Works. Nearly 150 papers are recorded in the Royal Society Catalogue of Scientific Papers VI, 262-263; VIII, 1192-1195; XI, 746-747; XIX, 465-466; which, however, ignores a large number of interesting letters to chemical News and Journal of Physical Science. In addition there are “On the Physical Peculiarities of Solutions of Gases in Liquids,” in Philosophical Magazine 6th ser., 3 (1902), 346–348, 498–500; and his contributions to H. Watts, A Dictionary of Chemistry, 7 vols. (London, 1863-1875; 2nd ed., 8 vols., London, 1872-1881). Wanklyn’s association with John Gamgee’s abortive Milk Journal and Farmers’ Gazette. A Monthly Review of the Dairy …(Jan, 1871–Aug. 1872) should also be noted. Patent literature should also be consulted.

Wanklyn’s books, which carried the subtitle … a Practical Treatise on …, were Water Analysis, written with E. T. Chapman (London, 1868, 1870, 1874, 1876, 1879, 1884, 1889, 1891, 1896 [10th ed.]; a 9th ed. could not be traced)—the 11th, posthumous ed, lacks Chapman’s name and was edited by Wanklyn’s assistant, William John Cooper (London, 1907)—and a German trans. (Charlottenburg, 1893), with the 4 th (1876) to 8th (1891) eds. containing a polemical historical appendix; A Manual of Public Health, Ernest Hart, ed. (London, 1874), written with W. H. Mitchell and W. H. Corfield—Wanklyn claimed responsibility for 303 – 374 only (see Chemistry News, 29 [1874], 9); Milk Analysis (London, 1874; 2nd ed., 1886); Tea, Coffee and Cocoa (London, 1874; reissed 1886); Bread Analysis (London, 1881; 2nd ed., 1886), written with W. J. Cooper: The Gas Engineer’s Chemical Manual (London, 1886 : 2nd ed ., 1888) : Air Analysis (London, 1890), written with W. J. Cooper; Sewage Analysis (London, 1899; 2nd ed., 1905), written with W. J. Cooper; and Arsenic (London, 1901).

The Royal Society has a few of Wanklyn’s letters. The archives of the London Institution (1805-1912) are housed at Guildhall Library, London.

II. Secondary Literature. The 11th ed, of Water Analysis (1907) contains a memoir with photography by W. J. Cooper, an interesting selection of Wanklyn’s testimonials, and an appalling bibliography. See also T. E. James, “J. A. Wanklyn,” in Dictionary of National Biography, supp. I , vol. III , 587–588. His death was conspicuously ignored by the Chemical Society. The Liebig-Thudichum correspondence on Wanklyn’s election to the Bavarian Academy of sciences is reproduced in David L. Drabkin, Thudichum, Chemist of the Brain (Philadelphia, 1958), 244–247. The context and significance of Wanklyn’s analytical work can be understood from C. A. Mitchell. Fifty Years of the Society of Public Analysts (Cambridge, 1932), esp. 1–13.

W. H. Brock