William Ramsay Scientist Biography: Achievements and Contribution

William Ramsay was a celebrated British scientist of the late 19th and early 20th century. He was popular for discovering the four noble gasses namely, Krypton, Neon, Argon and Xenon. He had even made a significant study of the chemical properties of gasses like Helium and Radon. His discovery of these noble gasses has not only added a new family of elements in the periodic table but also it has shown the way towards understanding the working of these elements.

William Ramsay was a famous scientist
William Ramsay was a famous scientist

Childhood & Family

William was born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1852. His parents were William Ramsay and Catherine, née Robertson. He spent his early years growing up in Glasgow itself. William comes from a family where science was the core. His father was a civil engineer. Both his grandfathers (paternal and maternal) were actively involved in the field of science. Sir Andrew Ramsay, a famous geologist of those times was William’s uncle. It can be said that his family background became the deciding factor of his career. William married Margaret in the year 1881. She was the daughter of George Stevenson Buchanan. Together, they had two children, one son, and one daughter.


William Ramsay did his early education at the Glasgow Academy. He, later on, went to the University of Glasgow. For pursuing higher education, William took admission at the University of Tübingen, Germany. William was a Professor of Inorganic Chemistry at the University College London from 1887-1913. He, later on, took up the position of Principal at the University. During his tenure as Principal of Chemistry at University College London, he brought about some crucial changes in the University rules. One such big change was that he permitted female students to attend lectures along with their male counterparts. Earlier, separate lectures were conducted for female students.

Around 1872, that is, prior to his teaching at the University College London, William had a short stint of working at different places. He worked as an assistant to Professor of Applied Chemistry at Glasgow’s Anderson’s College. He also worked as a tutorial assistant at Glasgow University. In 1880, he took up the dual position of Principal as well as Professor of Chemistry at University College Bristol. William Ramsay was fondly called as ‘The Chief’ by his students.

In 1872, William was awarded doctorate for his dissertation, titled ‘Investigations in the Toluic and Nitrotulic Acids’. He submitted his thesis under William Rudolph Fittig. At the time of receiving his Ph.D. degree, William was 20 years old. During his early years, William worked in Organic Chemistry. However, from 1880’s, he was primarily involved in Physical Chemistry.

Contribution to science

One of his major contributions to the field of science is the discovery of Helium in 1895. He stumbled upon Argon in 1894 and the other noble gasses were soon discovered in 1898. These gasses were treated as a new family of elements that showed similar properties. He had prior to the discovery of these elements anticipated their existence in the periodic table. His findings proved his prediction.

How did his discovery help?

Another important discovery made by William was creating world’s very first Neon Light. This happened when William, along with his assistant Travers was working on finding the missing element in the periodic table. This new gas was named as ‘neon’ by Ramsay. This name was derived from the Greek word ‘neon’ which literally means ‘new’. This discovery forever changed the course of science.

The fact that Radon falls in the family of noble gasses was proved by William. However, unlike other noble gasses, Radon is radioactive. After several experiments, it had been discovered that Radon gets released when the radioactive components in Thorium begin to decompose. This was proved in 1902 by a pair of scientists, Rutherford and Frederick Soddy. The two scientists placed Radon (as per their observations) in the family of noble gasses. Although the experiments were a success, it was not entirely settled as many still were not convinced that Radon was a noble gas. However, in 1910, Ramsay and Robert Whytlaw-Gray produced a specimen of Radon gas. They also successfully measured the atomic weight and density of Radon. This firmly established and proved that Radon was a noble gas.

Many of the experiments done by William were a collaborate efforts with Lord Rayleigh. Like Ramsay, who received Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Rayleigh was the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics. The two worked together and discovered Argon. This collaborated effort was a result of a lecture given by Rayleigh in 1894 and which was attended by Ramsay. During the lecture, Rayleigh posed a question to the audience regarding a change in nitrogen’s density made by chemical synthesis.

Rayleigh further added that Nitrogen behaved differently when other known components were separated. After Rayleigh’s lecture concluded, Ramsay went up to him and said that he was intrigued by this question and would be interested in finding out the cause for nitrogen to behave differently. Thus, both Ramsay and Rayleigh agreed upon working together to find the solution for the mysterious behavior of nitrogen. Their experiments, in turn, led them on the path of discovering Argon. Apart from Rayleigh, William Ramsay has also worked with John William Strutt.

Helium was another noble gas that William Ramsay had worked closely with. It was earlier believed that elements like Helium could only be present on the surface of the Sun. However, Ramsay through his work discovered that Helium can also be produced by the collective radioactive decaying of two elements namely, Radium and Argon.

In 1900, William Ramsay and his wife Margaret travelled to then British India after receiving an invitation from J.N.Tata, a notable industrialist, and philanthropist in India. He was extended the invitation by Mr. Tata to give advice on setting up of the Tata Institute of Science. This Institute is now recognized as one of the reputed institutes in the field of scientific research. Based on his valuable inputs, the institute was constructed. William received the knighthood in 1902 and was known as Sir William Ramsay. In 1904, he received Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his contribution to the discovery of inert gaseous elements.

William was known to be an avid traveler. Even whilst travelling, he would try to find new things. Since he enjoyed travelling he visited many countries. He always made it a point to at least understand and be able to talk a few basic things in the local language of the country that he is visiting.

William Ramsay retired in 1913. He died in 1916 at High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire, three years after his retirement. Sir William Ramsay died of nasal cancer. He had undergone surgeries in order to remove the cancerous growth in his nose. One assumption about the cancerous growth in his body that holds ground is that during his experiments he could have been exposed to radioactive material or some other elements that adversely affected his health. At the time of his death, he was 63 years old. He was buried in Holy Trinity Churchyard in Hazelmere village in Wycombe.

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