Alexander William Williamson

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Alexander William Williamson
Williamson Alexander.jpg
Alexander William Williamson
Born 1 May 1824
Wandsworth, London, England
Died 6 May 1904
Hindhead, Surrey
Nationality British
Alma mater University of Giessen
Doctoral advisor Leopold Gmelin
Justus von Liebig
Known for Synthesis of ethers
Notable awards Royal Medal (1862)

Alexander William Williamson FRS (1 May 1824 – 6 May 1904)[1] was an English chemist of Scottish descent. He is best known today for the Williamson ether synthesis.


Williams enrolled at the University of Heidelberg in 1841. After working under Leopold Gmelin at Heidelberg, he transferred to the University of Giessen to work with Justus von Liebig, where he received his Ph.D. in 1845. Williamson then spent three years in Paris studying higher mathematics under Auguste Comte.[2][3]

In 1849, with the support of Thomas Graham, Williamson was appointed professor of analytical and practical chemistry at University College, London. From Graham's resignation in 1855 until Williamson's retirement in 1887, Williamson also held the chair of general (theoretical) chemistry.[2]

As a result of this increase in income,[2] he was able to marry Emma Catherine Key, the third daughter of Thomas Hewitt Key, in 1855.[1] They had two children: Oliver Key (d. 1941) and Alice Maude.[2] Alice Maud Williamson married the physicist Alfred Henry Fison (1857–1923). Williamson died on 6 May 1904, at Hindhead, Surrey, England, and was buried at Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey.[4]

Research on ether[edit]

Alexander Williamson

Williamson is credited for his research on the formation of unsymmetrical ethers by the interaction of an alkoxide with a haloalkane, known as the Williamson ether synthesis. He regarded ether and alcohol as substances analogous to and built up on the same type as water, and he further introduced the water-type as a widely applicable basis for the classification of chemical compounds. The method of stating the rational constitution of bodies by comparison with water he believed capable of wide extension, and that one type, he thought, would suffice for all inorganic compounds, as well as for the best-known organic ones, the formula of water being taken in certain cases as doubled or tripled.[5][6][7]

So far back as 1850 he also suggested a view which, in a modified form, is of fundamental importance in the modern theory of ionic dissociation, for, in a paper on the theory of the formation of ether, he urged that in an aggregate of molecules of any compound there is an exchange constantly going on between the elements which are contained in it; for instance, in hydrochloric acid each atom of hydrogen does not remain quietly in juxtaposition with the atom of chlorine with which it first united, but changes places with other atoms of hydrogen. A somewhat similar hypothesis was put forward by Rudolf Clausius about the same time.[5]

Honours and awards[edit]

For his work on etherification, Williamson received a Royal medal from the Royal Society in 1862, of which he became a fellow in 1855, and which he served as foreign secretary from 1873 to 1889. He was twice president of the London Chemical Society, from 1863–1865 and from 1869–1871.[5][8]

Williamson and the Chōshū Five[edit]

In 1863 five students from the Chōshū clan were smuggled out of Japan, which was a closed society. At the time, the laws of the Edo period made travel to another country a capital offence. After reaching London, they were placed under the guidance of Professor Williamson. He and his wife Catherine welcomed them, taught them English, introduced them to western society, and arranged for them to study Chemistry at University College London. Ito Shunsuke (later Ito Hirobumi), Endo Kinsuke and Nomura Yakichi (later Inoue Masaru) lived with the Williamsons, while Inoue Monta (later Inoue Kaoru), and Yamao Yozo lived nearby. They all later served in the Japanese government, and made enormous scientific and social contributions to the modernisation of Japan. Fourteen more international Japanese students, from the Satsuma clan, later worked with Williamson beginning in 1865.[9]

External links[edit]


  1. ^ a b "WILLIAMSON, Alexander William". Who's who, biographies, 1901: page 1197. 
  2. ^ a b c d "Williamson Papers". University College London Special Collections. 
  3. ^ Foster, G. Carey (1911). "Gedächtnisfeier: Alexander William Williamson". Berichte der deutschen chemischen Gesellschaft 44 (3): 2253–2269. doi:10.1002/cber.19110440339. 
  4. ^ Harris, J.; Brock, W. H. (1978). "From Giessen to Gower Street: Towards a Biography of Alexander William Williamson (1824–1904)". Annals of Science (Taylor & Francis) 31 (2): 95–130. doi:10.1080/00033797400200171. 
  5. ^ a b c  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Williamson, Alexander William". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 
  6. ^ Paul, E. Robert (1978). "Alexander W. Williamson on the atomic theory: A study of nineteenth-century British atomism". Annals of Science 35 (1): 17–31. doi:10.1080/00033797800200111. 
  7. ^ Williamson, Alexander (1850). "Theory of Aetherification". Philosophical Magazine 37: 350–356. doi:10.1080/14786445008646627. 
  8. ^ Foster, G. Carey; Tilden, W. A.; McLeod, Herbert; Mills, Edmund J.; Scott, A.; Foster, G. Carey (1905). "Alexander William Williamson". Journal of the Chemical Society 87: 605–618. doi:10.1039/CT9058700565. 
  9. ^ Davies, Alwyn (2014). "Alexander Williamson and the Modernisation of Japan" (PDF). Royal Society of Chemistry Historical Group Newsletter and Summary of Papers 65 (Winter). Retrieved 17 November 2015.