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

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.

THE CHEMIST responsible for establishing a strong research tradition in chemistry at the university was William J. Pope (1870–1939), who became 1702 professor of chemistry in 1908.

“Pope shaped the department in the early years of the 20th century, and he made some important discoveries,” Archer says. “He established that asymmetric centers in optically active compounds could be elements other than carbon, such as nitrogen, sulfur, and selenium. He also demonstrated that compounds without asymmetric centers can still be optically active. His research on phosphine and arsine was, in a way, a precursor to the coordination chemistry work that came later in the department.”

A contemporary of Pope’s at Cambridge, Thomas M. Lowry (1874–1936), also worked on optical activity. In 1898, he discovered the phenomenon of mutarotation. Lowry, who became the first professor of physical chemistry at the university in 1920, is better known, however, for his proton transfer theory of acids and bases. He introduced the theory in 1923 simultaneously with, but independent of, the Danish chemist Johannes N. Brønsted (1879–1947). According to the theory, acids and bases are substances consisting of molecules or ions that donate and accept protons, respectively.

Following Lowry’s death, Ronald G. W. Norrish (1897–1978) was appointed professor of physical chemistry. He carried out wide-ranging research on photochemistry and reaction kinetics, especially on short-lived transient species. In 1945, George Porter joined Norrish’s group as a postgraduate research student. Their collaboration on the use of flow techniques and short light pulses for the study of gaseous free radicals produced in photochemical reactions and combustion continued until 1954 when Porter left Cambridge. Norrish and Porter shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1967 with Manfred Eigen at the Max Planck Institute for Physical Chemistry, Göttingen, Germany, for, according to the Nobel citation, “their studies of extremely fast chemical reactions, effected by disturbing the equilibrium by means of very short pulses of energy.”

One of the greatest holders of the 1702 chair, according to Archer, was Lord Alexander R. Todd (1907–97). He moved from the University of Manchester to Cambridge in 1944.

“He brought with him a group that inevitably became known as the Toddlers,” Archer says.

Todd was particularly interested in the chemistry of natural products, for example, vitamins B-1, E, and B-12; the constituents of cannabis species; and insect colorants. In 1957, he won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on nucleotides and nucleotide coenzymes. Todd was also president of the International Union of Pure & Applied Chemistry from 1963 to 1965.

“Todd was a huge presence at the university in every respect,” Archer says. “When he arrived in the department, which was then still on Pembroke Street, the facilities there were out-of-date, so he persuaded the government to build a new laboratory for the department.”

The new university chemical laboratory, on Lensfield Road, was formally opened by Princess Margaret on Nov. 6, 1958

“In the rapidly changing world of today, I wonder just what exciting advances will be made over the next 300 years. This is a great time to be a chemist.”
The current holder of the 1702 chair is Steven V. Ley. “The main emphasis of our work is the discovery and development of new synthetic methods and their application to the synthesis of biologically active molecules,” Ley notes. His group is engaged in the synthesis of many large and complex natural products such as rapamycin, an immune suppressant; spongistatin, a potent antitumor agent; and azadirachtin, a potent insect antifeedant.

Earlier this year, Ley’s group achieved the first total synthesis of (+)-plicamine, a complex natural product, using a combination of supported reagents and scavengers to effect all the synthetic steps [Angew. Chem. Int. Ed., 41, 2194 (2002); C&EN, June 17, page 26].

(+)-Plicamine is an Amaryllidaceae alkaloid; many members of this family of alkaloids exhibit potent biological activity including antitumor, immunosuppressive, and analgesic activity. Alkaloids in this class have also been shown to inhibit various cell-cycle mechanisms and HIV-1 activity, and have found recent application in the therapeutic treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, the group notes.

“Our work is special in that 13 carefully selected immobilized reagents were used to give a clean product without the need for conventional workup or chromatographic procedures,” Ley tells C&EN. “This is remarkable given the complexity of the problem.”

Sanders observes that the chemistry department today is also strong in atmospheric chemistry and kinetics. “Our world-leading expertise in understanding atmospheric science and climate change can be traced back directly to the early fundamental work by Norrish and Porter,” he says.

Research at the university’s Centre for Atmospheric Science, which was founded by the chemistry department in collaboration with the department of applied mathematics and theoretical physics, includes modeling fundamental atmospheric processes, developing and deploying instruments to measure atmospheric constituents, and measuring the rate constants of atmospheric reactions in the laboratory.

Other research strengths of the chemistry department range from chemical biology and nanotechnology to the more conventional areas of chemistry, such as structural chemistry, surface science, and heterogeneous catalysis, Sanders notes. His own work includes research on dynamic combinatorial chemistry.

VICTORIAN By the 1940s, the university’s old chemical laboratory on Pembroke Street had became congested and inconvenient to run.

THE DEPARTMENT achieved a top rating in the 2001 research assessment exercise operated by the higher education funding councils in Britain.

The Lensfield Road laboratory where Sanders, Ley, and their colleagues in the chemistry department carry out their research is currently being renovated. “Since the late 1950s, when the laboratory opened, the total number of academic staff, senior research fellows, support staff, postdoctoral researchers, and Ph.D. students has increased from about 250 to almost 600,” Sanders says. “So in the mid-1990s, we drew up a strategic plan for refurbishing and expanding the building. The current phase of the project will be finished by December. By then, two-thirds of the building will be transformed into modern laboratories.”

The cost of the project is well over $100 million, of which around $42 million was provided from the British government’s Joint Infrastructure Fund. Unilever, BP, and Glaxo Wellcome (now GlaxoSmithKline) have also contributed funding to the project.

In March 2001, the university opened its $20 million Unilever Centre for Molecular Informatics as part of the chemistry department.

“The center develops information technology tools, such as intelligent browsers and robotic intelligence, to combine data from many different sources and unite the world of molecular sciences,” notes Robert Glen, who heads the center. “The aim of the research is to accelerate innovation and discovery across chemistry, physics, biology, genetics, and other scientific disciplines by providing tools for the mining and analysis of data across disciplines.

“At present, more than 90% of scientific findings remain unknown to the majority of scientists,” he continues. “In the future, major advances in science will depend on our ability to handle masses of information, particularly across scientific disciplines such as chemistry and biology. Informatics will enable us to access and work with much more information of far greater complexity than was imaginable even five years ago.”

As part of its endeavors to create an exciting and stimulating chemistry environment at the Lensfield Road laboratory, the department formed a museum group last year. “The objectives of the museum project are to catalog and collect information, photographs, old models, apparatuses, and other historical material for the department, and find places in the public areas of the laboratory where these can be exhibited,” archivist Haley notes.

The university is also taking stock of its 300-year history of chemistry and marking the tercentenary with a two-day celebration in December titled “Transformation and Change.” The event will include a symposium that examines the past, present, and future of chemistry at the university.

Ley, the current holder of the BP 1702 chair, will present a lecture on chemistry in a changing world at the symposium.

“I am proud and honored to be the 1702 professor at Cambridge with its rich history,” he tells C&EN. “It is remarkable to reflect upon the advances in the chemical sciences that have been made over the last 300 years and the benefits that have arisen to mankind. In the rapidly changing world of today, I wonder just what exciting advances will be made over the next 300 years. This is a great time to be a chemist.”

REGAL Princess Margaret and Todd examine a model of vitamin B-12 during the opening of new laboratory on Lensfield Road in 1958.


College System Began In 13th Century

Although exact details are not known, according to historical records the University of Cambridge, in England, was founded at the beginning of the 13th century. Early documentary evidence of its founding was probably destroyed in riots in the town during the 1380s.

Scholars at the university were originally assigned to masters, who not only taught them but also arranged their accommodation in lodging-houses. These houses eventually became established as residential colleges.

There are now 31 colleges at the university, three of which are solely for women. Two admit only graduate students. The colleges are autonomous institutions with their own property and income. They control the selection of students and are responsible for their general welfare.

Students live, eat, and socialize in the colleges. There they are advised by “tutors” and are taught in small tutorial groups. The college system at Cambridge, like the one at Oxford University, enables staff and students of different disciplines to come together and exchange ideas.

Each college appoints its own academic staff, known as fellows or dons, all of whom have rooms in the college. The fellows are also members of the departments of the university—a distinct organization of which the colleges are a part.

Steven V. Ley, for example, is BP 1702 professor of organic chemistry in Cambridge University’s chemistry department and a fellow of Trinity College. Chemistry professor and department head Jeremy Sanders is a fellow of Selwyn College.

The university provides formal teaching through lectures, seminars, and practical classes in centralized facilities such as the University Chemical Laboratory. The university also examines and awards degrees to its students.



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