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Ira Remsen

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Ira Remsen
Born(1846-02-10)February 10, 1846
New York City, New York, U.S.
DiedMarch 4, 1927(1927-03-04) (aged 81)
Alma materColumbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons
University of Göttingen
Known forDiscovery of saccharin
Founder, American Chemical Journal
SpouseElisabeth Hilleard Mallory
AwardsPriestley Medal (1923)
Willard Gibbs Award (1914)
Scientific career
InstitutionsUniversity of Tübingen
Williams College
Johns Hopkins University
Doctoral advisorWilhelm Rudolph Fittig
Doctoral studentsWilliam Henry Emerson
Charles Herty
William A. Noyes
Kotaro Shimomura

Ira Remsen (February 10, 1846 – March 4, 1927) was an American chemist who discovered the artificial sweetener saccharin along with Constantin Fahlberg. He was the second president of Johns Hopkins University.

He was the founder of the American Chemical Journal, which he edited from 1879 to 1914.[1][2][3]

Early life[edit]

Portrait of Dr. Ira Remsen, painted by Ira Mallory Remsen in 1926.

Ira Remsen was born in New York City on February 10, 1846. He is the son of James Vanderbelt Remsen (1818–1892) and Rosanna Secor (1823–1856). He married Elisabeth Hilleard Mallory on April 3, 1875, in New York City, New York. They had two children together. Their son, Ira Mallory Remsen (1876–1928), became a playwright living in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California.[4][1]

Remsen earned an M.D. from the New York Homeopathic Medical College in 1865.[5] He subsequently studied chemistry in Germany, studying under chemist Wilhelm Rudolph Fittig, receiving a PhD from University of Göttingen in 1870.[6]


In 1872, after researching pure chemistry at University of Tübingen, Remsen returned to the United States and became a professor at Williams College, where he wrote the popular text Theoretical Chemistry.[1] Remsen's book and reputation brought him to the attention of Daniel Coit Gilman, who invited him to become one of the original faculty of Johns Hopkins University. Remsen accepted and founded the department of chemistry there, overseeing his own laboratory. In 1879, Remsen founded the American Chemical Journal, which he edited for 35 years.[1][2][3]

In 1879 Fahlberg, working with Remsen in a post-doctoral capacity, made an accidental discovery that changed Remsen's career. Eating rolls at dinner after a long day in the lab researching coal tar derivatives, Fahlberg noticed that the rolls tasted initially sweet but then bitter.[7] Since his wife tasted nothing strange about the rolls, Fahlberg tasted his fingers and noticed that the bitter taste was probably from one of the chemicals in his lab. The next day at his lab he tasted the chemicals that he had been working with the previous day and discovered that it was the oxidation of o-toluenesulfonamide he had tasted the previous evening. He named the substance saccharin and he and his research partner Remsen published their finding in 1880. Later Remsen became angry after Fahlberg, in patenting saccharin, claimed that he alone had discovered saccharin.[8] Remsen had no interest in the commercial success of saccharin, from which Fahlberg profited, but he was incensed at the perceived dishonesty of not crediting him as the head of the laboratory.[7] Fahlberg would soon grow wealthy, while Remsen merely grew irritated, believing he deserved credit for substances produced in his laboratory. In a letter to Scottish chemist William Ramsay,[9][10] Remsen commented, "Fahlberg is a scoundrel. It nauseates me to hear my name mentioned in the same breath with him."[11][12]

Throughout his academic career, Remsen was known as an excellent teacher, rigorous in his expectations but patient with the beginner. "His lectures to beginners were models of didactic exposition, and many of his graduate students owe much of their later success in their own lecture rooms to the pedagogical training received from attendance upon Remsen's lectures to freshmen."[13]

He was elected as a member to the American Philosophical Society in 1879.[14]

In 1901 Remsen was appointed the president of Johns Hopkins,[1] where he proceeded to found a School of Engineering[15] and helped establish the school as a research university. He introduced many of the German laboratory techniques he had learned and wrote several important chemistry textbooks. In 1912 he stepped down as president, due to ill health, and retired to Carmel, California.[16]

In 1923 he was awarded the Priestley medal.[17][18]


He died on March 4, 1927, in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California. His ashes are interred behind a plaque in the chemistry building on the Homewood campus at Johns Hopkins University.[1][16]


After his death, the new chemistry building, completed in 1924, was named after him at Johns Hopkins. His ashes are located behind a plaque in Remsen Hall; he is the only person buried on campus.[1][19]

His Baltimore house was added to the National Register of Historic Places and declared a National Historic Landmark in 1975.[20]

Remsen Hall in Queens College is also named for him.[21]

Remsen Award[edit]

In 1946, to commemorate the centenary of Remsen, the Maryland chapter of the American Chemical Society, began awarding the Remsen award, in his honor.[22][23][24][25] Awardees are frequently of the highest caliber, and included a sequence of 16 Nobel laureates between 1950 and 1980.



  1. ^ a b c d e f g Stimpert, James (September 11, 2000). "Ira Remsen: The Chemistry Was Right". The Johns Hopkins Gazette. Vol. 30, no. 2. Retrieved February 10, 2021. Ira Remsen was born Feb. 10, 1846, in New York City, of Dutch and Huguenot ancestry. ... Returning to the United States, he took a position as professor of chemistry and physics at Williams College. He found Williams unsympathetic to scientific research, so he concentrated on teaching. Shortly thereafter, he wrote Theoretical Chemistry, in which he reduced fundamental principles to a form simple enough for beginning students to understand. The book received immediate recognition and was soon translated into German and Italian. ... In 1879 he founded the American Chemical Journal, which he edited for 35 years, and he contributed a number of authoritative textbooks that remained standards for many years. ... When Gilman retired from the presidency in 1901, after 25 years, the trustees turned to Ira Remsen to lead the university. ... Ill health forced Remsen to resign from the presidency in 1912, but he recovered sufficiently to rejoin the professional world, serving as a consultant to industry. He died on March 4, 1927. Upon Remsen's death, the Hopkins trustees named the recently completed chemistry building on the Homewood campus in his honor. His ashes are interred behind a plaque in the building.
  2. ^ a b "Member Directory -- Ira Remsen". nationalacademyofsciences.org. National Academy of Sciences. Retrieved February 9, 2021. In addition, he founded the American Chemical Journal in 1879 and served as its editor until 1913.
  3. ^ a b Armstrong, Henry E. (April 1927). "Prof. Ira Remsen". Nature. 119 (2999): 608–609. Bibcode:1927Natur.119..608A. doi:10.1038/119608a0. ISSN 1476-4687. ...he also started the American Chemical Journal, which he carried on until 1914, when it was merged in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. ...
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  10. ^ Allen, Thomas J.; O'Shea, Rory P. (September 18, 2014). Building Technology Transfer within Research Universities: An Entrepreneurial Approach. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-87653-7.
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  12. ^ Newton, David E. (2009). Food Chemistry. Infobase Publishing. ISBN 978-1-4381-0975-6.
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  16. ^ a b Palmer, William P. (August 22, 2018). "Ira Remsen: Stories for chemical education". Chemistry in Australia magazine. The Royal Australian Chemical Institute. Retrieved February 9, 2021. He resigned as President of Johns Hopkins University in April 1912 due to ill health. ... Remsen did not retire completely until his 80th birthday in 1926. He died in Carmel, California, on 4 March 1927.
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  20. ^ "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. April 15, 2008.
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  22. ^ Burgison, Raymond M. (May 1, 1957). "The Remsen Memorial Lecture 1946–1957" (PDF). Chesapeake Chemist. 13 (5): 9–10. Retrieved October 18, 2018. It was the intention of the Maryland Section that Remsen Memorial Lecturers should be chemists of outstanding ability, as exemplified by Ira Remsen's long and devoted career as an exponent of the highest standard in teaching and research in chemistry. That the intentions of the Section have been fulfilled is attested by the great honor and esteem that have become associated with the receipt of the Remsen Lectureship.
  23. ^ a b "American Chemical Society Awards: Priestley Medal". Nature. 158 (4011): 371–372. 1946. Bibcode:1946Natur.158S.371.. doi:10.1038/158371c0. ISSN 0028-0836.
  24. ^ a b Hartford, Winslow H. (1946). "Ira Remsen and Roger Adams--A Chemical Centennial". The Scientific Monthly. 63 (4): 261–267. Bibcode:1946SciMo..63..261H. JSTOR 18751. The year 1946 marks the one-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Ira Remsen, first professor of chemistry and second president of The Johns Hopkins University. The chemists of Maryland, through the Maryland Section of the American Chemical Society, have appropriately chosen this year to initiate a series of lectures in his honor, and Professor Roger Adams of the University of Illinois was selected as the first Remsen Lecturer.
  25. ^ National Academy of Sciences (U.S.); National Research Council (U.S.) (1955). Scientific and Technical Societies of the United States and Canada. Publication (National Research Council (U.S.))) (6th ed.). National Academy of Sciences-National Research Council. p. 43. Retrieved November 13, 2018.
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  30. ^ "McCollum Delivers Remsen Memorial Lecture". Chemical & Engineering News. 26 (25): 1833–1834. June 21, 1948. doi:10.1021/cen-v026n025.p1833. ISSN 0009-2347.
  31. ^ "Joel H. Hildebrand to Deliver Remsen Memorial Lecture". Chemical & Engineering News. 27 (20): 1429. May 16, 1949. doi:10.1021/cen-v027n020.p1429. ISSN 0009-2347.
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