A brief history of the Chemical and Physical Society

The Chemical and Physical Society was founded in 1876, fifty years after the establishment of University College. Several other societies preceded it, each reflecting the UCL emphasis on scientific debate and discussion. Its antecedent was the Literary and Scientific Society founded in 1828 which was still flourishing in the 1840s in an era when science and arts were inter-affiliated. In the late 1840s, the Birkbeck Philosophical Society branched out of the LSS devoting itself specifically to science. Then in 1853, a University College Chemical Society was founded for the “discussion of subjects in Chemistry and the Allied Sciences by means of (1) original papers on Chemical Subjects and subsequent discussion thereon; (2) Abstracts of the more important papers in the English and foreign journals; (3) discussion on points of practical and theoretical interest.”

The Literary and Scientific Society disappeared in 1856-7 and the Chemical Society vanished in 1859, apparently after the hour of meeting was changed from 6:30 to 7:30! In 1863-4, a Literary and Philosophical Society was formed under the presidency of William Stanley Jevons, a polymath later to become a renowned economist and logician, but there is no record of it beyond 1871-2. At this time the Chemical Laboratory at UCL was known as the Birkbeck Laboratory and on 9th November 1876, students of the Birkbeck Laboratory met to establish the Chemical and Physical Society “for the reading of papers and for discussions upon Chemical matters”. Mr R.T.Plimpton was the first secretary and the society was constituted at a general meeting of the laboratory on 17th November 1876. Mr. (later Sir) Oliver Lodge was elected president. A set of rules was adopted including one percipient example, hitherto unrevoked; “The President shall interpret doubtful rules and decide questions for which provision may not have been made”.

For a time, a prize was given annually for the best paper of the year, excursions were arranged to chemical works in the neighbourhood and until the Great War, the frequency of meetings averaged 12 per session. In 1880, a start was made on a library which in later years received generous support from Sir William Ramsay and proved to be of great use to students. On the foundation of the Ramsay Reading Room in the Chemical Department in 1922, the books which remained were handed over to the College library. At the same time, the Society presented the Department with a fine portrait of Sir William Ramsay.

The first annual dinner was held in 1883 and, although this custom has fallen into abeyance, a Chemical Laboratory Dinner is held annually in the first term. An Annual Public meeting was inaugurated in 1877, discontinued after a time and re-appeared in 1922 in the form of a Distinguished Visitors Address. These were popular occasions; the audience for Rev. Prof. T.G. Bonney FRS speaking on “Serpentine rock and its origin” numbered between 1100 and 1200.

The exodus from Germany in the thirties meant that several high profile scientists joined the Department, notably Edward Teller who stayed from 1934-35 and Herbert Freundlich of surface chemistry fame. But Teller’s stay was conditional: “He (Professor Frederick Donnan) offered me the job on one condition: that I read one little volume to remedy my deplorable lack of education. He gave me ‘Alice in Wonderland “. The Jahn-Teller effect was conceived during their stay here.

Throughout the period from 1930s to 1990s the Society published, sometimes intermittently, the “Journal of the Chemical and Physical Society”; those editions that are extant boast articles by authors who are now famous. In the centennial edition in 1976, Teller declared that his time here was perhaps the happiest of his life. Frederick Donnan made the German visitors feel at home by making everyone at the tea club speak German on one day of the week.

During the 2nd World War the department divided; the general degree was taught at Bangor and the honours degree at Aberystwyth where CPS meetings continued to be held jointly with Aberystwyth chemists.

Perhaps the high point of the post-war years was the centenary of the Society in 1976. Lady Ingold was president. All the professors became Vice-presidents, and, during that year, five Nobel Laureates addressed the Society: Linus Pauling, Andrew Huxley, Vladimir Prelog, James Black and Peter Medawar.

Brady makes this closing comment in his 1924 history of the Chemical and Physical Society and it has not been diminished in veracity by the passing of 84 years: “The Society is in a very flourishing condition and looks forward to many years of useful work; its success has depended upon a succession of energetic student-secretaries to whom all those whose interest in research and modern developments in Chemistry and Physics has been stimulated by its meetings, owe a debt of gratitude”.

Julian Evans
President 2008-9

Part of this account of the early history of the Chemical and Physical Society is based upon a longer script by O.L.Brady written in October 1924. Brady cites as his sources: records and minute books and an historical sketch by Dr S. Rideal published in the University College Gazette for 1886. Professor Alwyn Davies has kindly contributed to this historical summary from his recollections and archive.

A list of past presidents from 1876 until now can be found from this link.

If the historical aspect interests you, more information can be found in the department history pages in the Periodic Table of Lecturers. Also, if anybody has anymore inciteful and interesting information regarding the history the CPS, please contact the webmaster.