How To Reach C&ENACS Membership Number


August 12, 2002
Volume 80, Number 32
CENEAR 80 32 pp. 39-43
ISSN 0009-2347

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STEEPED IN HISTORY The origins of chemistry at the University of Cambridge can be traced back to its previous association with alchemy and pharmacy.


Few universities in the world can boast a 300-year history of chemistry, especially one that reflects, in many ways, the history of chemistry itself over the past three centuries.

But Cambridge University in England can. Although chemistry did not become formally established there until 1702, the roots of the subject at the university can be traced back even further—to the 16th and 17th centuries when alchemy was secretly practiced there and lessons were offered on the preparation of chemical prescriptions for the treatment of venereal and other diseases.

For two centuries after 1702, work at the university continued on the production of new medical prescriptions and on other early chemistry topics, such as gunpowder. Chemistry at Cambridge, however, has been most productive and successful over the past 100 years. For example, since 1901—the year of the first Nobel Prizes—17 winners of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry have been students or teachers at the university. One of them, Frederick Sanger, who obtained a Ph.D. at Cambridge in 1943, has won two: In 1958, he won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on the structure of proteins, especially that of insulin, and in 1980, he shared the prize with U.S. biochemists Paul Berg and Walter Gilbert for work on determining the base sequences in nucleic acids.

Nowadays, the chemistry department at Cambridge is one of the strongest in the world, observes Jeremy Sanders, chemistry professor and head of the department.

“We have a long history of world-class chemistry,” he tells C&EN. “Chemistry in Cambridge at the start of the 21st century is more diverse and vigorous than it has ever been. We are confident that new, exciting, and, above all, unpredictable discoveries are just around the corner.”

The university first recognized chemistry as an academic discipline in 1702 when its senate granted the title of professor of chemistry to Italian chemist and pharmacist Giovanni F. Vigani.

Vigani was born in Verona around 1650. Few details of his life are known from before he settled in the English town of Newark-on-Trent around 1682 to work as a pharmacist. His only publication, a booklet describing chemical and pharmaceutical preparations, was published in London the following year. The preparations included a green mercury compound that he claimed was an infallible cure for gonorrhea.

ECLECTIC Vigani collected a variety of chemical materials, several of which are still stored at the university.
IN 1683, HE started teaching chemistry as a private tutor and college lecturer, notably to students at Queens’ and Trinity, two of the university’s colleges. His lectures and demonstrations were concerned with the practical aspects of preparing useful chemical compounds and pharmacological prescriptions.

“He gained such a good reputation as a tutor in chemistry that the university created a chair of chemistry especially for him in 1702 to honor his services to the university,” explains Mary Archer, former chemistry lecturer at the university and head of a steering group that is organizing a two-day symposium later this year to celebrate the department’s tercentenary (

Archer points out that Vigani was an intimate friend of the astronomer, mathematician, and physicist Sir Isaac Newton (1643–1727), who is famous for, among other things, his laws of motion. Newton, a fellow of Trinity College and one of the most important figures in the history of science, covertly practiced alchemy in a college laboratory, an activity the university frowned upon. Another alchemist, John Dee (1527–1608), who was one of the founding fellows of the college as well as an astrologer and mathematician, is regarded as the alchemical father of chemistry at Cambridge.

“The transition between alchemy and chemistry was just beginning at the end of the 17th century,” observes Peter Wothers, a teaching fellow in the department of chemistry at the university. “At that time, the so-called alchemists were essentially carrying out chemical operations. I think you could say that Newton was also a chemist. Vigani, who used Newton’s laboratory, was not interested in alchemy.”

Newton’s alchemical laboratory has long since vanished, according to Archer. “The master of Trinity College, Richard Bentley, offered to build a chemical laboratory for Vigani at the college,” she says.

“Vigani’s very fine chemical cabinet is still in Queens’ College,” she continues. “The cabinet, one of the best I’ve ever seen, contains pigments, semiprecious stones, labeled drugs, vials of organic fluids, and quite a number of chemical elements and compounds. It is a bit of an eclectic mixture.”

Vigani ceased teaching around 1708 and died in Newark-on-Trent in 1713.

Since 1702, 15 chemists, including Vigani, have held the chair. Since 1992, it has been called the BP 1702 chair of organic chemistry, after BP endowed the chair with a donation of about $2.2 million. “There may be older chairs in some of the Italian universities, and it is not the oldest chair of chemistry in Britain,” Archer says. “Oxford University, for example, had a professor of chemistry in 1683, but that chair lapsed. The 1702 chair in Cambridge is certainly the oldest continuously occupied chair in the U.K.”

Some of the occupants of the chair in the 18th century achieved little of note in chemistry. Richard Watson (1737–1816), even claimed to be totally ignorant of chemistry when he was appointed in 1764. “I knew nothing of chemistry, had never read a syllable on the subject, nor seen a single experiment in it,” he famously admitted at the time.

Even so, Watson plunged into the subject with enthusiasm.

“He did a lot of work improving the quality of gunpowder,” Wothers says. “However, being a devout Christian, he had moral qualms about his work. In 1773, he resigned from the 1702 chair and subsequently became a bishop in the Church of England. He burned all his chemistry books and manuscripts.”

In the 19th century, one of the most notable holders of the 1702 chair was Smithson Tennant (1761–1815), who occupied it from 1813 until 1815 when he was killed by a drawbridge collapsing under him.

“Before his appointment, Tennant had worked as a commercial chemist with his friend William H. Wollaston on producing platinum,” notes Chris Haley, archivist and historian in the chemistry department at Cambridge. “Platinum vessels were used for concentrating sulfuric acid. Another major use of their platinum was for the touch-holes in flintlock pistols and rifles. These are the holes through which the gunpowder is ignited.”

Wollaston and Tennant identified four new elements in platinum ore. “Wollaston identified rhodium in 1802 and palladium in 1804,” Haley points out. “Tennant identified osmium and iridium in 1804. Although they were colleagues and business partners, their discoveries of new elements were made independently.”

For much of the 19th century, there was little chemistry research of significance at the university and, as centralized university facilities were limited, practical demonstrations for students were carried out mainly in college laboratories. The first university chemical laboratory built specifically for that purpose was opened in the city’s Pembroke Street in 1887.

EXPANSION The chemical laboratory on Pembroke Street required extensions as student numbers increased in the early 20th century.

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