català | castellano | english home   sitemap   aviso legal   créditos   contacto  
home home

Anne Barrett, Imperial College London

"Nineteenth Century German Science in London"

This rather broad title introduces the thinking behind the development of some of the constituent Colleges of Imperial College.

Briefly, Imperial College was formed in 1907 from the Royal College of Chemistry which was later subsumed by the Royal School of Mines the RSM itself the Royal College of Science and the City and Guilds College.  

The Royal College of Chemistry, about which I will talk most, was founded in 1845, the School of Mines in 1851 the Royal College of  Science in 1881 and the City and Guilds College in 1884. This sets the chronological scene and I intend to describe the symbiotic relationship between German and British chemists using the RCC as a model.

During much of the nineteenth century, it was felt by leading exponents of science, manufacturers and some government officials that Britain lagged behind the continent in scientific and technical education and training. The development of the Colleges I have mentioned coincided with an upsurge in interest in popular education amongst the general population, both in Britain and the continent. This led to another industry developing in popular lectures and halls of exposition and much pedagogic publishing, though discussion of that development belongs to another lecture.

The Royal College of Chemistry was set up by subscription under the working title of the Davy College of  Practical Chemistry. (Named after the English chemist, Davy). Its purpose was to establish an institution where chemistry could be studied systematically and experimentally in laboratories available for tuition in chemical analysis. There was no such institution in Britain by the time that is 1842. Some individuals took pupils, (such as Thomas Graham in Glasgow and London) but in order to gain a thorough grounding in chemistry it was necessary for students to attend the German Schools, such as Liebig’s in Giessen or Wohler in Gottingen. This necessarily limited study to those of substantial financial means. As Hofmann was later to say, there was no shortage of good chemists in Britain, but a marked lack of practical, experimental and teaching establishments. He further remarks that as the RCC enabled students of all levels of class to attend, he could discern no antagonism between them in the laboratories.

A leading chemist of the day, Lyon Playfair, says in his introduction to the Hofmann Memorial Lecture of  1893 that the influence of Liebig was paramount in the demand for laboratory teaching at even the old universities. Liebig’s work Chemistry of Agriculture and Physiology  was published in 1840 to great interest in Britain. Playfair translated the book in 1842. He had been a student of Liebig in Giessen 1839 to1840. Manufacturers and landowners saw this book as valuable to their work at a time of economic downturn. Scientists backing the College saw it as a way to ensure agricultural chemistry was seen as important to Britain as it had been demonstrated to be on the continent. This success was followed by Liebig’s ‘triumphal tour of this country’ as Playfair puts it in 1842. It was Playfair who devised and led it so that it would have maximum impact. He apparently achieved his aim as he says’ the immediate effect of Liebig’s tour was to make chemistry a popular science and to induce colleges to open laboratories for teaching it.’

The College was to be set up along the lines of the Giessen laboratories and its first advertising  prospectus promoted it as being :

‘..mainly devoted to Pure Science; at the same time, to meet the exigencies of this country , and to adopt the latest improvements in the continental schools, an appendage will be provided, devoted to the Economic Arts, where enquiries relating to Pharmacy, Agriculture and other arts may be pursued.’

Perhaps I should explain that arts at this time was a term used to describe the practical application of any science, industrial pursuit or craft (Concise Oxford Dictionary), it can be a confusing term to use currently.

The organising committee was made up of scientists, government officials and titled men and in 1845 added royalty to their number as their President, in the person of Albert Prince Consort, who himself was German - Prince Albert of Saxe Coburg Gotha. It was of course Prince Albert who was responsible for the Great Exhibition of 1851, at which manufactures, arts and design from around the world were first displayed. He was also responsible for ensuring that the profits of the exhibition were used to create the South Kensington area of museums and educational establishments, of which Imperial College is one.

Of the Scientists, Dr John Gardner was the driving force behind the founding of the Royal College of Chemistry. He was an Apothecary who translated Liebig’s Familiar Letters on Chemistry in its Relation to Physiology, Dietetics, Agriculture ,and Political Economy in 1843. This and the translation of subsequent editions led him to meet Liebig and become an M.D. of Giessen in 1847.Gardner was the College’s first Secretary. J.Lloyd Bullock another founder member had also been a pupil of Liebig. The royal connection for the College began with the Queen’s Physician Sir James Clark and it was he who persuaded Prince Albert to become President. Sir Henry De La Beche, geologist was a staunch supporter. He was the founder of the Geological Survey of Great Britain and of the Museum of  Practical Geology which was later to be developed by him into the Royal School of Mines. Lyon Playfair was first Professor of Chemistry at the School of Mines. Hofmann was to follow him as Professor of Chemistry at the Royal School of mines, when the RCC merged with the institution in 1853.

Next came the task of appointing a Professor and approaches were made to distinguished German chemists, first Dr Carl Remigius Fresenius who was Professor of Chemistry at the Agricultural School of Wiesbaden and secondly Dr Heinrich Will Assistant Professor at the University of Giessen, both of whom refused the offer. The offer was then made to Wihelm von Hofmann who had a private laboratory in Bonn, was ‘Privat Docent’ lecturing on agricultural chemistry at Bonn University and continuing private research. He had been a pupil of Liebig at Giessen. The German connections of the School proved useful in securing Hofman’s acceptance of the post as Prince Albert interceded with the Government so that Hofmann was made Extraordinary Professor of Chemistry at Bonn with leave of absence for two years. Hofmann’s assistant who worked on cumarine and benzoic acid, Hermann Bleibtreu came over with him staying during the first session. His successor, John Blyth had also worked in Germany with Liebig, Heinrich Rose and Magnus.

The plans for the school were approved by both  Hofmann and Liebig .Hofmann purchased much of the equipment form Germany, though some was made in Britain. One of the reasons for the use of German glass was that the quality was superior, British glass having a propensity to dissolve at high temperature. Graduated glassware for measuring was also rare and when produced inaccurate in Britain.

It was also less expensive to purchase from Germany.

Extracts from his Musterbuch show diagrams of glassware. This has been annotated in German, but not in Hofmann’s hand. This could have been produced by one of Hofmann’s German assistants, it probably dates from the late 1840s.

In Giessen, Hofmann had researched coal tar, and he continued to do so when in London. His work led to the establishment of the coal tar industry and the development of the dye industry, the latter being exploited by his pupil Perkin who developed the first synthetic purple dye based on anilines. However, Playfair says ‘though these originated in [Britain] as an important industry, the Germans from their better technical education, have now secured nearly nine-tenths of the production of artificial colours.’

There was a flow of students from Germany who came to study under Hofmann, including George Merck of the chemical company Merck in Darmstadt, who while an RCC student analysed one of the well water’s of Bath Spa, Peter Griess who took the position of chemist at the Allsop Brewery in the English Midlands (Burton-on-Trent) and C.A. Martius founder of AGFA. Some of these became Hofmann’s private assistants, others were  P.W.Hofmann; Fischer, Fries, Kopp, Forster; Ulrich, Olshausen,Willbrand, Sell and Geyger.

Hofmann returned to Germany in 1865, having accepted the Chair of Chemistry at Berlin. Despite his happy work and social life in London, he was happy to spend the end of his career in Germany. His professorship in London brought him into close contact with the Prince Consort and the royal family; he gave the royal children chemistry lectures and was invited to Osborne House, the royal residence on the Isle of Wight, to give a lecture to Queen Victoria. He also numbered many of the scientists of the day as his friends and was a figure in London society. He was President of the Chemical Society in 1862 and set up the German Chemical Society in 1867 along the same lines as the British one. He died in Berlin in 1892.

Even after Hofmann’s return to Germany the influence of his teaching and that of Liebig, Fresenius and Will continued in a text book used at the College written by W.G. Valentin.

Conclusion: Lyon Playfair writes in his introduction to the Hofmann memorial lectures in 1893:

‘Hofmann’s discoveries (those I previously discussed relating to the coal tar industry) are our heritage in science. In reviewing Hofmann’s successful life which has so enriched the fields in which he laboured, both old and young feel that we should like to live as he lived. In thinking of Hofmann, I recall one of my favourite verses by Bailey:


‘We live in deeds not years; in thoughts not breaths, In feelings, not figures on a dial.
We should count time by heart throbs. He most lives Who thinks most, feels the noblest, acts the best.’’

 Primary Sources: Royal College of Chemistry material, Imperial College Archives

Secondary sources used:

General: Jonathan Bentley The History of the School of Chemistry at the Royal College of Science and its Predecessors during the 19th century MA Thesis, University of Oxford, 1962

Jonathan Bentley The Work in England of A.W.von Hofmann, Professor of Chemistry at the Royal College of Chemistry 1845-1865 University of Leicester, 1969

Register of Associates and Old Students of the Royal college of Chemistry, the Royal School of Mines and the Royal College of Science 1896

References to properties of glass particularly:

Kethleen Mary Hammond, Bibliography  MA Thesis,University College London,

Catherine Jackson Reassessing the Role of August Wilhelm von Hofmann at the Royal College of Chemistry  MSc Thesis, Imperial College, 2004




bottom