Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Williamson, Alexander William
WILLIAMSON, ALEXANDER WILLIAM (1824–1904), chemist, born at Wandsworth on 1 May 1824, was second of three children of Alexander Williamson, originally of Elgin, who settled in London, and became a clerk in the East India House. His mother, Antonia (married 1820), was daughter of William McAndrew, merchant, of London. About 1830 the elder Williamson removed from Camberwell to Wright's Lane, Kensington, hard by the home of James Mill (father of John Stuart Mill), and Williamson's colleague in official work. The two families were on terms of friendship.
In early life young Williamson had delicate health, and took no part in the usual games of boyhood. A low vitality led, from various causes, to loss of sight in his right eye, and to chronic, though partial, disablement of the left arm. Though thus handicapped, he became eventually of robust constitution. After education at home and at Kensington grammar school Williamson went abroad with his parents, on his father's retirement from the India House. For some time he had private tuition at Dijon with his sister Antonia (b. 1822). In 1840 he entered Heidelberg University with a view to a medical career. He attended Friedrich Tiedemann's lectures in physiology and those of Leopold Gmelin in chemistry. Finally he decided to give up medicine for chemical research. Four years later he left to study chemistry under Liebig at Giessen University, going into residence with Prof. Hillebrand. He also joined Bischoff's classes in physiology. Williamson was of the opinion that the Giessen laboratory was the most efficient organisation for the promotion of chemistry that had ever existed (see Brit. Assoc. address, 1873). He graduated Ph.D. in 1846.
Willamson spent the next three years in Paris, studying mathematics with Auguste Comte. To his father he wrote, 'If my experience of Comte's superior powers were insufficient to convince you that his lessons were worth their price, John Stuart Mill's saying that he "would prefer him to any man in Europe to finish a scientific education," ought to carry the point and to induce you to consent to my continuing as I have begun.'
In 1849 he was appointed professor of practical chemistry in University College, London, succeeding George Fownes [q. v.]. In 1855 this post was joined with the professorship of general chemistry, vacant by the resignation of his friend Thomas Graham [q. v.]. Williamson occupied the chair for thirty-eight years, earning distinction as a teacher and instigator of research. In 1887 he retired and was made emeritus professor of chemistry (see Life and Experiences of Sir H. E. Roscoe, 1906; portrait of Williamson, and reminiscences). He delivered a farewell address on 14 June 1887, when Sir William Ramsay presided (Chemical News, 8 July 1887).
Owing to Williamson's scientific influence, force of character, and cosmopolitan outlook, he was chosen guardian of a small group of young Japanese noblemen, who came to England in 1863 with a view to familiarising themselves and their countrymen with European culture. Of five who first reached London three took up residence in Williamson's own house. Subsequently the Prince of Satsuma sent over sixteen more youths. The Marquis Ito, Count Inouye, and Viscount Yamao were among those who owed their early training to Williamson.
Williamson's published researches were comparatively few in number, but some of them were of such a character that they influenced profoundly the progress of chemical knowledge and philosophy. His chief chemical investigations were made between 1844 and 1859. While at Giessen he published three papers, which, though written for Liebig's 'Annalen,' appeared originally in the 'Memoirs of the Chemical Society of London' (1844-6). They were: 'On the Decomposition of Oxides and Salts by Chlorine'; 'Some Experiments on Ozone'; and 'On the Blue Compounds of Cyanogen and Iron.'
About 1849 he began his classical research on the theory of etherification, in which he laid the foundations of chemical dynamics, of the theory of ionisation, and of the theory of catalytic action. Embodied firstly in a communication to the British Association (Edinburgh meeting), 3 Aug. 1850, 'Results of a Research on Etherification,' the extended paper appeared in the 'Philosophical Magazine' for Nov. 1850 (see, in reference to priority, Chemical News, 8 July 1904). A chief ultimate fruit of the research was Williamson's theory of the constitution of salts, from which emerged the doctrine of valency and the linkage of radicles (see obit. notice by Sir T. E. Thorpe, Proc. Roy. Soc.). He cleared up, wrote Sir James Dewar, one of the most intricate and recondite of chemical reactions, and in so doing struck at the very root of the chemical problems connected with atomic and molecular weights. The subject was further elucidated in the memoirs 'On the Constitution of Salts' (Journ. Chem. Soc. vol. iv. 1852); 'On Gerhardt's Discovery of Anhydrous Organic Acids' (Proc. Roy. Inst. vol. i.); and 'Note on the Decomposition of Sulphuric Acid by Pentachloride of Phosphorus' (Proc. Roy. Soc. vol. vii.). His papers on Etherification and on the Constitution of Salts were issued as an Alembic Club reprint (Edinburgh, 1902). At the Royal Institution he delivered a lecture, 6 June 1851, 'Suggestions for the Dynamics of Chemistry, derived from the Theory of Etherification.'
Subsequent papers by Williamson of a miscellaneous nature comprised 'On the Dynamics of the Galvanic Battery' (Phil. Mag. 1863-4); 'On the Composition of the Gases evolved by the Bath Spring called King's Bath' (Rept. Brit. Assoc. 1865; see paper by Hon. R. J. Strutt, Proc. Roy. Soc. vol. lxxii. (1904), p. 191); and 'On Fermentation' (Pharmaceut. Journ. 1871). Jointly with Dr. W. J. Russell [q. v. Suppl. II] he published ‘Note on the Measurement of Gases in Analysis’ (Proc. Roy. Soc. vol. ix. 1857–9); and ‘On a New Method of Gas Analysis’ (Jour. Chem. Soc. vol. ii. 1864).
Williamson was admitted into the Chemical Society on 15 May 1848, served on the council (1850–3, 1858–60), and was president (1863–5, and 1869–71). He was responsible for the introduction into the society's ‘Journal’ of abstracts of chemical memoirs of British and foreign authorship (see Journal, vol. xxiii. p. 290). He was president of the British Association in 1873 at the Bradford meeting, when he gave an address on the intellectual value of chemical studies and the duties of the government in relation to education; he presided over section B in 1863 (Newcastle) and in 1881 (York). At the latter, the jubilee meeting, he gave an address on ‘The Growth of the Atomic Theory.’ He succeeded William Spottiswoode as general treasurer in 1874, holding office until 1891.
Elected a fellow of the Royal Society on 7 June 1855, he served on the council (1859–61, 1869–71); from 1873 to 1889 he was foreign secretary. He received a royal medal in 1862 for his researches on the compound ethers and subsequent communications in organic chemistry (see Proc. Roy. Soc. xii. 279).
Many foreign bodies conferred distinctions on him; he became a corresponding member of the French Academy of Sciences, the Berlin Academy, and R. Accademia dei Lincei, Rome, respectively in 1873, 1875 and 1883. The Royal Society of Edinburgh made him an honorary fellow (1883); he was an honorary member of the Royal Irish Academy (1885), of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society (1889), and of the Society of Public Analysts (1875). He was also a foundation member (1872) of the Society of Telegraph Engineers (afterwards Institution of Electrical Engineers), and of the Society of Chemical Industry (1881). From Dublin and Edinburgh Universities he received the honorary degree of LL.D. respectively in 1878 and 1881; from Durham University that of D.C.L. in 1889.
Williamson was for some years examiner in chemistry in the University of London, and from 1874 a member of the senate. He took a prominent part in the introduction there of degrees of science, and was deeply interested in the formation of a teaching university for London. He was a member of the first electrical standards committee, inaugurated by the association in 1861. From 1876 to 1901 he was chief gas examiner under the board of trade, having succeeded Henry Letheby [q. v.].
Williamson, who wrote articles for Watts's ‘Dictionary of Chemistry’ (1863–6), was author of a text-book, ‘Chemistry for Students’ (1865; 3rd edit. 1873). Conjointly with T. H. Key he published the pamphlet ‘Invasion invited by the Defenceless State of England’ (1858). On 11 Nov. 1898 Williamson was one of six guests at a banquet given in London by the Chemical Society to those of its past presidents who had been fellows for half a century (see Proc. Chem. Soc. no. 199, speech by Williamson).
Williamson died on 6 May 1904 at his home, High Pitfold, Shottermill, Haslemere, and was buried at Brookwood cemetery, Surrey. He married in 1855 Emma Catherine, third daughter of Thomas Hewitt Key, F.R.S., headmaster of University College School, and had issue a son and a daughter, who, with his wife, survived him.
A subscription portrait of Williamson, painted by the Hon. John Collier, hangs in the council room of University College (see Nature, 20 Dec. 1888, speeches by Sir H. E. Roscoe and Williamson at presentation ceremony); another, executed in 1894–5 by Mr. W. Biscombe Gardner, was presented to the chemical department. An autotype portrait hangs in the council room of the Chemical Society in the series of past presidents.
[Proc. Roy. Soc. (with portrait), vol. lxxviii. A, and Presidential Address Roy. Soc. (Sir W. Huggins) in Year Book, 1905; Trans. Chem. Soc., vol. lxxxvii. (pt. i.); Jubilee Record Chem. Soc. 1896; Proc. Roy. Soc. Edin., vol. xxvi.; Memoirs Lit. Phil. Soc. Manch., vol. xlix. (ser. 4); Chemical News, 13 May 1904; Analyst, June 1904; Journ. Soc. Chem. Industry, vol. xxiii.; Journ. of Gas Lighting, 10 May 1904; English Mechanic, 13 May 1904; Roy. Soc. Catal. Sci. Papers; Poggendorff's Handwörterbuch, Bd. iii. (1898), Bd. iv. (1904); Encycl. Brit. (11th edit.) vol. xxviii.; Nature, 12 May 1904; The Times, 7 and 14 May 1904; Men of the Time, 1899.]