Sir William Ramsay was born in Glasgow, 2 October, 1852 to William Ramsay CE and Catherine nee’ Robertson. Ramsay was the nephew of renowned geologist, Sr. Andrew Ramsay.
Sir William Ramsay received his early education at the Glasgow Academy and transferred to the University of Glasgow to study under Thomas Anderson. He then transferred again to study with Wilhelm Rudolph Fittig at the University of Tobingen in Germany, where he received his Doctorate in Philosophy with a thesis entitled, “Investigations in the Toulic and Nitrotoluic Acids.”
Ramsay took a position with Anderson at the Anderson College in his early career, but later became a Professor of Chemistry at the University of Bristol in 1879. In 1881, he became principal of the school.
In 1881, Ramsay married sweetheart Margaret Buchanan, daughter of George Stevenson Buchanan, with whom he sired one son and one daughter.
In addition to his successful careers at the universities, Sir William Ramsay is most famous for his research into organic and inorganic chemistry (which earned him the Nobel Prize in 1904, awarded by King Oscar the II of Sweden, 8 years after the passing of Alfred Nobel).
At the commencement ceremony, J. E. Cederbloom of the Royal Institute of Technology made the speech about Ramsay:
“The discovery of an entirely new group of elements, of which no single representative had been known with any certainty, is something utterly unique in the history of chemistry, being intrinsically an advance of science of peculiar significance. The more remarkable is this advance when we recollect that all these elements are components of the atmosphere of the earth, and that, though apparently so accessible for scientific research, they have for so long a time baffled the acumen of eminent scientists, who from the time of Scheele, Priestley, and Lavoisier to our own day have been occupied in determining the chemical and physical properties of the air. The discovery, however, signifies far more than the simple addition of five new elements to the seventy odd that are already known. This is to no slight degree owing to the inert character of the new gases, which certainly renders their study very difficult, but at the same time places them in a very peculiar position among the other elements. In spite of repeated and indefatigable endeavors it has been found impossible in any authenticated case to induce chemical combination either with each other or with other known elements. Such a total inertness among elements was previously unknown; indeed it was almost generally believed that the power of entering into chemical reaction was a fundamental attribute which-though in a higher or lower degree-characterized all the elements. The discovery of the noble gases has removed this impediment to our knowledge, widened our far too narrow view of the nature of the elements, and for this reason, from a theoretical aspect, is of special interest.” [sic].
Ramsay went on to succeed Alexander Williamson as the chair of Chemistry at the University of London and was well published in the field between 1885 and 1890, among which was work on “Picoline,” and along with Dobbie, published “Decomposition Products of the Quinine Alkaloids,” (1878-1879) and went further to publish on Stoichiometry and Thermodynamics.
In 1887, Sir William Ramsay accepted a tenure at the University of London, where he remained until he retired in 1913.
In April of 1894, Ramsay attended a lecture by Lord Rayleigh which inspired the research that led to the discovery of Argon, which he named for its Greek word, meaning “The Lazy One.” Later he would go on to discover Neon, Krypton, Xenon, Helium (though there is debate about the latter), and Radon.
Sir William Ramsay, in cooperation with Sydney Young published works on evaporation and dissociation (1886-1889), and more works solo in 1889 on the solutions of metals.
In his leisure time, Ramsay is reported to have enjoyed languages and traveling.
Sir William Ramsay was the recipient of numerous prestigious awards from many renowned academics.
Sir William Ramsay died of nasal cancer on 23 July, 1916 in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire and is laid to rest at Hazelmere Parish Church.