Sunday, January 31, 2010

Theodore William Richards

Theodore William Richards was born in Germantown in Philadelphia, PA on January 31, 1868. He was the fifth child and third son of father William Trost Richards who was a famous landscape painter and mother Anna Matlack who was a poet. Because of the poor quality of schools in Philadelphia at the time and the family's frequent travels, Richards got his elementary education from his mother. The boy's early desire to become a painter like his father had faded by the time that he was thirteen.

At thirteen he received a large box containing materials and apparatus for 200 experiments "warranted to be safe and instructive". Richards recorded his progress, "Soon afterwards, ... I had nearly blown my head off with this outfit." Richards interest in chemistry was sparked and he obtained and read several basic chemistry textbooks to increase his knowledge and safety.

In 1883 he entered Haverford College in Pennsylvania. There he studied chemistry and astronomy graduating in 1885. From there he went to Harvard to study under Josiah Parsons Cooke, a family friend. There he finished his B.A. in chemistry in 1885 and his M.A. and Ph.D. in 1888, publishing a joint paper with professor Cooke on the atomic weights of hydrogen and oxygen and three other papers on his own.

After finishing his Ph.D. Richards spent a year at Gottengen, Germany where he worked under Paul Jannasch and Victor Meyer. Upon returning to Harvard Richards was appointed assistant in chemistry in 1889, instructor in chemistry in 1891, assistant professor in 1894 and professor in 1901, after passing up a professorship at the University of Gottengen. In 1895 he spent another year in Germany working with Wilhelm Ostwald and Walther Nernst. These two trips to Germany served as Richards introduction to physical chemistry. At the time there were no centers of physical chemistry research in the United States.

Half of Richards' research involved determining the atomic weights of the elements, starting with work on oxygen and copper in 1886. By 1912 he had accurately determined the atomic weight of thirty common elements. Richards also studied atomic and molecular volume and formulated the hypothesis of incompressible atoms, carrying out experiments on the compressibility of many elements and compounds using apparatus of his own invention. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1914 for his work on atomic weights, but was unable to travel to Sweden to accept it due to the outbreak of World War I. He also received the Davy Medal from the Royal Society in 1910, Willard Gibbs Medal from the American Chemical society in 1912, and the Franklin Medal from the Franklin Institute in 1916.

Richards continued his teaching and active research up until his death on April 2, 1928.


Conant, James Bryan, "Theodore William Richards"; in Biographical Memoirs; National Academies Press; 1974

Harrow, Benjamin, "Theodore William Richards"; in Eminent Chemists of Our Time; D. Van Nostrand Company; 1920

Theodore William Richards Nobel biography at

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Morris William Travers

Morris William Travers was born on January 24, 1872 in Kensington, London. He was the son of Dr. William Travers a surgeon and a pioneer of early aseptic techniques and Anne Pocock. Travers went to school at Ramsgate, Woking and Blundell's School. Showing an aptitude for science Travers went on to University College, London in 1889 and went to work for Sir William Ramsay. He graduated with a a B.S. in 1893.

After finishing his bachelors Travers went to Nancy, France where he planned to study organic chemistry, but finding both the subject and his advisor disagreeable he returned to University College where he returned to work for Ramsay. Ramsay was working studying rare gasses and had isolated Argon in 1894 and Helium in 1895. Ramsay realized that were still missing spaces on the periodic table left for undiscovered, non-reactive, noble gasses, so they built a copy of the machine invented by Carl von Linde which allowed them to obtain quantities of liquefied air.

In 1898 they obtained a large quantity of liquefied air which they subjected to fractionated distillation. From this they isolated Krypton in 1898. Krypton derives its name from the Greek word kryptos or hidden, as it is hidden in air. Later, examining a volume of argon, Ramsay and Travers identified another of the missing gasses, which they named neon after the Greek word for new, neo. On further examination of the liquefied air residues they found a third, heavier gas which they named xenon, after xeno the Greek word for strange. Because all of these gasses were unreactive the only way they could be identified was by placing them in a glass tube and electrifying them, each gas producing a unique spectrum. In the space of forty two days they had discovered three new elements. In 1898 Travers obtained his Ph.D. and in 1902 he published an account of their research.

In 1904 he accepted a position at University College Bristol and in 1906 he went to Bangalore, India to help found the Indian Institute of Science. In 1915 he returned to England to assist in the war effort working on the production of scientific glassware and munitions. He retired in 1937, but remained active as a consultant and writing a biography of Ramsay which was published in 1956. He died on August 15, 1961.


Travers, Morris at

Morris Travers wikipedia entry

Morris Travers at

The Elements: Names and Origins at h2g2 at

History of Chemistry: The Noble Gasses at h2g2 at

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Edward Frankland

Edward Frankland was born on January 18, 1825 at Churchdown, near Garstang in Lancashire the illegitimate son of a prosperous lawer. A percocious learner, he knew his letters by age 2 and at age 3 he was sent to a Dame's school in Manchester, where his mother was staying. He wrote of his devotion to the master, James Willasey, who he later assisted after the school closed and was left in poverty. From Dr. Willasey he learned to speak French without an accent and became interested in physical science. The last school he attended was Lancashire Grammar School where he learned Latin, which he hated.

At age fifteen he was apprenticed to a druggist. Frankland in his writings speaks of the six years of his apprenticeship as wasted time, calling it, "six years' continuous hard labor, from which I derived no advantage whatever, except the facility of tying up parcels neatly." Despite his complaints, he was able to make use of what little free time he had and borrow apparatus from his master to perform some basic experiments with the other apprentices.

In 1845, at the termination of his apprenticeship, Frankland traveled to London, where he was able to gain a position in the laboratory of Dr. Lyon Playfair, who had just been made the chemist to the Government Department of Woods and Forests. Although Dr. Playfair was often absent on official duties, Frankland made friends with his chief assistant, Mr. Ransom, who introduced him to the world of chemical analysis. So rapid was his progress that after six months he was offered the position as Playfair's lecture assistant.

In 1847 he went to Marburg, Germany, where he briefly worked in the laboratory of Robert Bunsen. But soon had to return to England, where he had a teaching position at the new Queenwood College in Hampshire. The position required him to lecture not only in chemistry but also botany and geology in addition to setting up the school's laboratory. At his new post he also had the opportunity to meet John Tyndal, who later would become a physics professor at the Royal Institution. During this time the two would rise early and while Frankland would study mathematics under Tyndal's direction, Frankland taught Tyndal chemistry.

In 1848 both Frankland and Tyndal traveled to Marburg, where Frankland continued his research and finished his Ph.D. His work on organometalic compounds laid the basis for his discovery of chemical valence. The compounds he was working with, zinc dialkyls, only combined in certain whole number ratios, an idea that Lavosier had found when working with the break down of water. This led Frankland to realize what he called atomicity, that we now call valence, that "the combining power of the attracting element is always satisfied by the same number of atoms." For twenty years he conducted research, from 1848 to 1868, into the nature of the combining capacity or valency of various elements.

The idea of valency is that the various elements all have a fixed number of bonds that they can form. For example hydrogen will always form only one bond, oxygen two, nitrogen three and carbon four. Frankland's legacy is this idea that elements will form a fixed number of chemical bonds, an idea that was slow in being accepted, but now is the basis of structural chemistry.

In 1865 he was appointed professor of the Royal School of Mines at South Kensington and the Royal College of Chemistry. Frankland was knighted in 1897, on the occasion of Queen Victoria's jubilee, for his thirty years of analyzing the pollution in municipal water supplies, a position he was appointed to in 1868. He died two years later on August 9, 1899.


Obituary Notice: William Frankland; American Chemical Journal Vol. 22 (1899) p.410-411

Sir Edward Frankland K.C.B., F.R.S.; Nature Vol. 60 (1899) p.372

Aiado, Tel; Chemist William Frankland; online at

Tilden, William; Famous Chemists: The Men and Their Work; George Routledge and Sons; 1921

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Norman George Heatley

Norman Heatley was born on January, 10 1911 in Woodbridge, Suffolk, his parents' only surviving child. His father, Thomas, was a veterinarian and he would often travel with his father to the surrounding farms. From his father he inherited the ability to work on a small scale. In an era of train travel, when everybody traveling carried with them a basket with things for tea and breakage was unavoidable, the ability to repair broken crockery was a useful skill.

At age seven he was sent to boarding school at St. Felix School, near Ipswitch, which he later called, "The nearest thing to Lord of the Flies I had ever heard of." The next year he was enrolled at Westbourne House, a boarding school in Folkstone. It was there that each week an elderly man came to the school and gave Heatley and the other students a lesson on practical science. It was these "re-letter lessons of the week" which sparked Heatley's interest in science.

In 1929 he entered St. John's College, Cambridge graduating in 1933 with a degree in natural science. He stayed on at Cambridge to earn a Ph.D. in biochemistry at the Dunn Institute of Biochemistry, completing his dissertation on "The Application of Microchemical Methods to Biological Problems". After graduating Heatley intended to set up an analytical service but after interviewing with Howard Florey he got a temporary job doing microchemical analysis at Oxford.

Florey's group was investigating antimicrobial substances and Ernst Chain, one of Florey's workers, had found paper by Alexander Fleming about the antibacterial properties of a mold called Penicillium Notatum. Chain's role was to find the structure of the antibacterial compound while Florey would determine its effects. While it soon became clear that this new substance was more effective in killing bacteria than anything currently available, the group was hindered by the fact that there was no test to determine the activity of the new compound and the currently used methods of extracting interesting compounds from the growth medium did not work on it. Heatley was able to solve both of these problems, devising a new unit for activity, called "Oxford units", and a two step extraction process.

By May 1940 the group was convinced that they had an important new antibacterial drug on their hands, with Heatley playing a key role in the experiment that had proved its worth. Heatley had injected 8 mice with virulent bacteria, four of which also received an injection of penicillin a hour later. Overnight he watched as the four mice without the penicillin injection die and while the other four, with penicillin injections, survived. Now the problem was to be able to produce enough penicillin for the much larger human system.

Due to the war British Pharmaceutical companies were unwilling to expend effort on a project involving an unproven drug and Florey and his team were forced to carry the project out on their own. The first thought to scale up their production using glass cultureware. It was quickly discovered that this would be prohibitively expensive and the group was forced to use cheaper ceramic cultureware designed by Heatley. The process, developed by Heatley, produced a white powder that was only about 1% penicillin, but was effective in fighting bacterial infections in humans.

Because it was war time and the threat of a German invasion was real, the group had to be prepared to destroy all its work, lest it fall into enemy hands. To ensure that all would not be lost Florey and his group seeded their lab coats with Penicillium spores, which were stable for years and could be used to regenerate their work.

On June 26, 1941 Florey and Heatley, took a blacked out Pan-Am Clipper seaplane bound for New York. The Rockefeller Foundation, which had funded Florey's group, urged Florey to come to America in order to find firms that would be interested in production of the new antibacterial drug. Unable to get any drug companies to continue his research Florey soon returned to England. Heatley stayed on, working at the Northern Regional Research Laboratory in Peoria, Illinois were he was assigned to work with A.J. Moyer. Heatley soon found that Moyer was carrying out his own research, not telling him what he was doing. Later Moyer used his solo research to apply for a patent on the new drug. The English would be forced to pay royalties for the use of penicillin, which they had discovered.

Heatley returned to Britain in July 1942. He went back to Oxford where he continued his work on penicillin until 1943. In 1945 Fleming, Florey and Chain were awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine for the discovery of Penicillin. Heatley was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Medicine from Oxford in 1990, the first given in its 800 year history. The Heatley Medal and Prize, given by the Biochemical Society, is awarded "for exceptional work that makes biochemistry widely accessible and usable, and for achievements that enable widespread progress and understanding."

Norman Heatley died on January 5, 2004.


Evans, Ruth; "Norman Heatley"; The Guardian; Jan, 8 2004

O'Conner, Anahad; "Dr. Norman Heatley, Pioneer of Penicillin Supply, Dies"; New York Times; January 17, 2004

The Heatley Prize at

Sunday, January 3, 2010

William Wilson Morgan

Dr. William Wilson Morgan was born on January 3, 1906 in Bethesda, Tennessee. Dr. Morgan, the son of Southern Methodist missionaries, moved frequently so he and his younger sister were initialy educated by their mother. At age 9 he went to school for the first time in Perry, Florida, then in Colorado Springs and he finished 8th grade in Poplar Bluff, Missouri in 1919. He finished his first two years of high school at Marvin Junior College in Fredricktown, Missouri and finished his last two at Central High School in Washington D.C.

In 1923 Dr. Morgan started his undergraduate study at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia finishing three years of classes before he joined the staff of Yerkes observatory after being recommended by Dr. Benjamin Wooten, Dr. Morgan's physics professor who had spent a summer at Yerkes, for a job taking daily spectroheliograms. Dr. Edwin Frost had been desperately searching for somebody to continue a series of spectroheliograms that had been taken daily for thirty years. At Yerkes, he was able to finish his bachelors by taking astronomy graduate courses and only set foot on the University of Chicago campus to sign up for the degree. He stayed at the observatory and finished his Ph.D. in 1931.

After finishing his doctorate he remained at Yerkes and began teaching a few years later, making full professor in 1947. He remained at Yerkes for 68 of his 88 years and was director from 1960 to 1963. From 1947 to 1952 he served as editor of the Astrophysical Journal. He was awarded the Bruce Medal by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific in 1958 and was awarded the Herschel Medal by the Royal Astronomical Society in 1983.

Dr. Morgan made numerous contributions to astronomy, including extending the Harvard system for classifying stellar spectra to include luminosity (named the MK system after Dr. Morgan and his colleague Dr. Philip Keenan), developing a system to determine the distance to remote stars more accurately, and demonstrating the existence of super giant galaxies. In 1951 he received a standing ovation from a meeting of the American Astronomical Society when he announced his discovery of two spiral arms of the Milky Way galaxy.

Because astronomers are unable to look at our home galaxy from the outside and at the time were limited to earthbound observations it was difficult for astronomers to determine the shape of the Milky Way. Dr. Morgan's observations allowed him to determine that the Milky Way was a spiral galaxy, similar in shape to the Andromeda nebula.

Dr. Morgan died on December 21, 1994.


Garrison, R. F.;"William Wilson Morgan (1906-1994)"; Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific; (1995)107:507-512

Osterbrock, Donald E.;"William Wilson Morgan"; Biographical Memoir at National Academy Press

Wilford, John Noble; "William Wilson Morgan dies at 88; a leading U.S. astronomer"; New York Times; June 24, 1994

William Wilson Morgan's Bruce Medalist page at