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C&EN Special Issue: 85th Anniversary Of The Priestley Medal - Volume 86, Number 14, April 7, 2008

1923: Ira Remsen (1846–1927)

The first Priestley Medalist was—according to his 1920 biographer, Benjamin Harrow—a titan of U.S. chemistry. Ira Remsen was “more directly responsible for the remarkable development of the science in the U.S. than any other man,” Harrow wrote. Remsen was certainly responsible for a lot of firsts, perhaps the most important being that he was the first professor of chemistry at the first institution ever established in the U.S. for postgraduate work: Johns Hopkins University.

After earning a medical degree to fulfill his father’s wishes, Remsen practiced medicine for a little while but decided to abandon the clinic to follow his own passion—chemistry. In the late-19th century, there were no research universities in the U.S. for him to pursue chemistry. So in 1867, he went to Munich to study with Justus von Liebig. Liebig was no longer taking students, however, so Remsen then turned to Jacob Volhard in Liebig’s laboratory. Through Volhard, he was introduced to Friedrich Wöhler, a pioneer of organic chemistry, who subsequently welcomed him as a student at the University of Göttingen. He received a Ph.D. in 1870. He then went to the University of Tübingen, where he remained for two years, returning to the U.S. in 1872.

After a stint as professor of chemistry and physics at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., in 1876, Remsen was invited by Daniel Coit Gilman, the first president of Johns Hopkins, to start the chemistry department there. Reminiscing over this offer in his 1914 Willard Gibbs Medal address, Remsen recalled, “President Gilman’s injunction was simply this: ‘Do your best work in your own way.’ What could be finer? I bought all the apparatus I wanted and all the books I wanted. A simple laboratory was built. I had but three or four students and we went to work.”

Remsen did particularly productive research on coal tar derivatives, inventing orthobenzoic sulphinide, which he named “saccharin” in 1879. Because this research was considered too specialized to publish in the current research journal in the U.S., the American Journal of Science, Remsen started the American Chemical Journal in 1889 with very little support. When that journal ceased publication in 1914, Remsen had been its only editor.

Under Remsen, research at Johns Hopkins became an essential part of the training of graduate students, and soon they began to come in larger and larger numbers. “There was great enthusiasm among these students,” Remsen recalled. “I have often been surprised and delighted to see how, generally, advanced students of chemistry (no doubt it is the same with other subjects) become deeply interested in the most abstruse problems the moment they begin to feel that what they are doing is going to be a contribution, even though a slight one, to the knowledge of the subject.”—Linda Raber

More On This Topic

  • 85th Anniversary of the Priestley Medal
  • Introduction
  • C&EN celebrates the American Chemical Society's highest honor
  • Priestley's Medals
  • The medals of the minister-scientist who discovered oxygen attest to his fame and infamy
  • The Priestley Medalists, 1923-2008
  • View a complete list of award recipients
  • Living History
  • These 12 Priestley Medal winners reflect on winning ACS's most coveted award
Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society

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More On This Topic

  • 85th Anniversary of the Priestley Medal
  • Introduction
  • C&EN celebrates the American Chemical Society's highest honor
  • Priestley's Medals
  • The medals of the minister-scientist who discovered oxygen attest to his fame and infamy
  • The Priestley Medalists, 1923-2008
  • View a complete list of award recipients
  • Living History
  • These 12 Priestley Medal winners reflect on winning ACS's most coveted award