Chemistry at Imperial
The Chemistry Department at Imperial spans three centuries, from the nineteenth to the twenty-first. The ancestor both of our present Department and of Imperial College itself was the Royal College of Chemistry (RCC). During the early part of the nineteenth century it became apparent that practical aspects of the experimental sciences were not well taught and that in Britain the instruction of chemistry in particular had fallen behind that in Germany. In Germany such teaching was a national priority, and a new chemical industry was emerging there. In London in the early 1840's a group of interested people set up an institute to teach practical chemistry; funds were raised from politicians, industrialists and the public, and in 1845 the RCC was set up, initially as a private institution.
The Prince Consort was an enthusiastic supporter and, through his contacts in Germany, persuaded August Wilhelm Hofmann, then only 28, to be the first Professor. The College opened in 1845 with 26 students at 16 Hanover Square (the building still stands). Hofmann was an inspired choice: he was charismatic and a chemist of international renown.
However, the College had financial troubles and in 1846 had to take cheaper premises at 299 Oxford Street. In 1872, with Government support (secured largely with the help of Lyon Playfair, himself a distinguished chemist) the College moved to the not yet occupied building of the School of Naval Architecture in Exhibition Road, South Kensington (now the Henry Cole wing of the Victoria and Albert Museum).
In 1865 Hofmann returned to Germany, and Sir Edward Frankland, the father of organometallic chemistry and a pioneer in the understanding of valency, became head of the department. There were now physics, mathematics and other departments and in 1881 the celebrated biologist T. H. Huxley ('Darwin’s bulldog') became Dean.
Three of the many famous early RCC students were Sir William Perkin, discoverer of the aniline dye mauveine and founder of the British dyestuffs industry; Sir Frederick Abel, the inventor of cordite; and the great polymath William Crookes who, after leaving the RCC, discovered thallium, did much fundamental work in physics and radiochemistry and became President of the Royal Society.
By 1900 the RCC had been renamed the Royal College of Science (RCS), and in 1906 the chemistry and physics departments moved to a new building designed by Sir Aston Webb in Imperial College Road – some of this remains as RCS-1. In 1907 Imperial College was founded by combining the RCS, the Royal School of Mines and the Guilds Central Technical College. In 1970, sadly, much of the chemistry building was demolished to make way for the present edifice but some of the old building ('RCS-1') remains in use; and has been cleaned and refurbished with generous help from the Wolfson Foundation.
Many professors of chemistry up and down the country and abroad and many leading industrial chemists received their training here, and the Department remains a centre of excellence for teaching and research. The present head of department is Professor Alan Armstrong who holds the chair of Professor of Organic Chemistry.