In 1657 Oliver Cromwell began the legislative process to establish a university at Durham, pointedly including a Laboratory for Chymical Experiments to reduce the dependence of science, at the time, on the legacy of philosophers. Opposition from the universities at Oxford and Cambridge, coupled with the Lord Protector's death a year later, frustrated a far-sighted initiative.

Durham University's early years (1832-1871)

Durham's Chemistry was started by the appointment in 1832 of James Finlay Wier Johnston1a,b as a lecturer, then reader (1833), in Chemistry and Mineralogy. In 1837 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (London). Energetic, and possessed of a lifelong commitment to promote a knowledge of science in education, commerce and the community, Johnston devised the University's first science-based degree programme - civil engineering and mining. It was the nation's first engineering curriculum. The programme included the study of chemistry, geology and mineralogy, Johnston's subject specialisms. He taught and examined them for the programme's 11 graduates (1838-44)2; yet he saw that demand for science at Durham was weak and became a prominent lecturer in science elsewhere, particularly at Newcastle upon Tyne and Edinburgh. Johnston in the region. As an author, Johnston was recognised nationally. The sale of his best-known books - Catechism of Agricultural Chemistry and Geology (1844) and The Chemistry of Life (1856) - continued into the 21st century.

Johnston's death in 1855 aged 59 had been in service. His successor, Thomas Richardson3, gave the occasional public lecture at Durham but had no obligations to undergraduates there, having been appointed to the lectureship in recognition of his teaching of chemistry at Newcastle upon Tyne College of Medicine4. Richardson, from a Tyneside glass-making family and with a Ph.D. in chemistry supervised by Justus Liebig at Giessen, was prominent in the region as a manufacturer of superphosphate fertiliser and lead products. He was also a professional analytical chemist with a significant number of research papers to his name (F.R.S. 1866).

From 1862 the University, after the death of its first Warden (the chief executive; known since 1963 as the Vice Chancellor and Warden), was significantly more sympathetic to science in higher education5a,b. During 1865-8 it tried to found a School of Physical Sciences and resurrect civil engineering; when Richardson died in 1867 aged 51 and was succeeded at the College of Medicine by his his assistant, Algernon Freire-Marreco (1837-82), the University made him reader in chemistry. The University was slowly conceding that science and civil engineering were more likely to prosper at Newcastle. It began to support the desire of that city's civic leaders and wealthy businessmen, notably the engineer and philanthropist William G. Armstrong F.R.S., to found a new, independent body - Newcastle upon Tyne College of Physical Sciences.5

Durham invests in Newcastle (1871-1883)

In 1871, the University abolished its chemistry post and transferred five years of financial support for it, plus the equivalent of full funding for another post and for ten undergraduate scholarships, to the College of Physical Sciences. The University's Warden chaired its governors and Freire-Marreco was appointed its professor of chemistry. The College, opening in makeshift accommodation that year to men and women, survived financial challenges, was authorised to offer the Durham bachelor degree in 1974 and in 1883, through being incorporated as a company by Durham University as Durham College of Science at Newcastle, set its sights on bringing its science accommodation to the prevailing national university standard.

University chemistry takes root in northeast England (1883-1924)

Though Durham University's first Bachelor of Science graduated in 1887 (1895 for the first woman) after three years' study at Newcastle that included chemistry, classified honours in separate subjects were not awarded initially6. In 1904, the College had been renamed Armstrong College, so when the first four honours chemists to be presented at Congregation in Durham received their degrees in 1915 they were Armstrong graduates. [Click here for a timeline (1657-1924) relating the College to the emergence of chemistry at university level in northeast England.]

Chemistry resumes at Durham (1924-1938)

By 1921, local authorities had been empowered nationally to fund a large increase in secondary and higher education7. The increase allowed degree-level science at Durham to be reborn in October 1924. That year saw the opening of the ground and lower-ground floors of the north and west ranges of a building that formed a home for the Department of Pure Science. That year its head, Irvine Masson [for biographical notes click Research Group] started 14 undergraduates on programmes in botany, chemistry, geology and physics. He had drawn heavily on willing help from colleagues at Newcastle: Norman Haworth more had made a large input to the design of the building, which in due course became known as the Dawson Building8, named for one of its founding fathers. 1927 saw the first Durham chemist graduate with honours, (9 from Newcastle that year); over the ensuing decade three (12) was the annual mean. Masson, Alexander Macbeth (in post 1924-8) and John Dobson (1924-7) were the three research-group leaders for chemistry [for further information about a leader, click on Research Group Leaders and then scroll down to Former], with two for physics and one each for botany and geology. Somehow, they found time to publish 11 research papers in 1925; by 19319 the total had become 80 (of which Masson had contributed 6) and a south range had increased the Building's ground-floor footprint by 50%. The first Chemistry Ph.D. to have qualified through research at Durham graduated in 1926 (only four years after Newcastle's first), followed by a graduation in 1930, another in 1935 and two in 1937 (7 that year at Newcastle).

Durham's Chemistry Department - the early years (1938-1953)

When Masson left in 1938, George Christie (in post 1926-65), Jack Gibby (1927-67) and Alec Waters (1928-45) remained as the chemistry staff. In that year, the separate departments of botany, chemistry, geology and physics were formed; they joined their sister departments at Newcastle as members of one Faculty of Science, with regulations - and often examination papers - common to both campuses. [The commonality survived until 1963, when on August 1 the University's Newcastle division (known from 1937 as King's College, with its own chief executive, the Rector) became Newcastle University.]

From 1939 to 1953, Friedrich Paneth [for biographical notes click Research Group] was professor and head of chemistry at Durham. His eminence in radiochemistry resulted in a wartime secondment to Montreal as leader of the British-Canadian atomic-energy chemistry team (1942-1945); during that time George Christie was acting head and the secondment of Waters (1939-44) was compensated by James Simpson's period as research-group leader. Paneth's return prompted the construction (1946) of the Londonderry Laboratory for Radiochemistry - two single-storey, parallel, north-south, asbestos-roofed brick huts about 10 m south of the south range of the Dawson Building. They were funded by Lord Londonderry, the University's chancellor at that time. In 1947, Paneth was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (London); two years later Imperial Chemical Industries endowed a rolling ICI postdoctoral research fellowship, which was to last until 1965. The huts, linked by an east-west corridor near their north ends and designed for use until 1956, stood until 1997. The addition of a second storey to the Building in 1948 (1953/4 for the south range), more 'temporary' huts to its south (one of them an undergraduate radiochemistry laboratory) and the transfer of the Science Library to the West Building (1952) left the ground floor of the 1924 Building to Chemistry and Physics. There was room for an increase of chemistry research-group leaders during Paneth's headship from four to seven. Waters had been succeeded by Kenneth Musgrave (1945-81), who had worked with Paneth in Montreal; the new posts went to George Kohnstam (1950-81; physical chemistry) and two affilates for the Laboratory - Graham Martin (1949-64) and Samuel Thomson [1951-7; successor to Victor Crawford (1949-50) and Keith Chackett (1950-1)].

Sunlit uplands (1953-1968)

With Geoffrey Coates [for biographical notes click Research Group] as professor and head (1953-1968), the number of research groups rose to 16 and chemical synthesis began to prosper from the efforts of new appointees: Arthur Banister (appointed 1964), Gerald Brooke (1962), Richard Chambers (1960), David Clark (1964, with spectroscopic and computational interests also), James Feast (1965), Frank Glockling (1956-69), Melvyn Kilner (1965) and Kenneth Wade (1961). Spectroscopy research was pursued by James Emsley (1964-7, nuclear-magnetic resonance), Harrison Shearer (1959-78, crystallography) and Jack Yarwood (1967, rovibrational), while existing research into organic-reaction mechanisms was strengthened by Michael Crampton (1965) and Lyn Williams (1963). More huts were deployed and crucially the first stage of the Chemistry-Geology Building (west and south wings; three storeys), opened in October 1960, allowing Chemistry to leave the Dawson Building, which congestion had overwhelmed again. The two lower floors of the new building were occupied by Chemistry and the top floor housed Geology. Construction had commenced in 1958. 50th Birthday Party
In 1964, stage 2 of the Building (north and east wings; two and three storeys, respectively) was occupied, with Geology (known during the academic years 1973-2004 as Geological Sciences; subsequently as Earth Sciences) taking the top floor and a workshop projecting 10 m southwards from the east wing's ground floor. 1964 saw also the construction of the Arthur Holmes and Scarbrough lecture theatres, connected to the east wing's eastern tip by a corridor stretching southwards and beyond them to the Mathematics Building; the resulting south-east wing formed, with the east and south wings and with Mathematics, a calm, sunlit quadrangle. Soon (1967±2), the south-east wing acquired greater symmetry by the addition, between the Scarbrough theatre and the Mathematics Building, of a suite for engineering-geology research. The quadrangle's fate Other new buildings had been rising on the Science Laboratories site since the mid-1950s in anticipation of the secession of King's College in August 1963 to form the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. [Click here for a list of the University's chemistry professors who held office before Newcastle's independence.]

Uphill of Chemistry's new building and just inside Little High Wood, a detached high-activity radiation facility had opened in 1957 for radiochemistry research, which by then had attracted Michael Weston (1957-82; successor to Thomson) and Samuel Lyle (1958-65) as research-group leaders. Gradually, that research waned and the facility became used increasingly for radiation-induced organic synthesis. The Department's growing reputation in organofluorine research was recognised by the creation in 1960 of a second chair of chemistry, which was filled by the internal promotion of Kenneth Musgrave. By 1965, radiochemistry research had ended, though the discipline was to survive in the undergraduate curriculum until 1987. Yet the Science Faculty changed its framework of undergraduate tuition little - a General Degree in Science had its first entrants in 1953 and a decade later two-subject honours degrees sprouted, teaming Chemistry with Applied Physics (final graduation in 1985), Botany (1985), Geology (1964-1977) and Zoology (1964-1985). In 1966, a curious relic of Empire ended with the return in March from Freetown (Sierra Leone) of the last of a succession of Science Faculty research-group leaders (Lyn Williams) on one-term secondment as teacher and moderator at Fourah Bay College. Its degrees were awarded by Durham University from 1878-1967. Coates' long headship coincided with a period when the University began to liberalise its governance - from 1963, new heads of departments were not appointed to retirement and the Boards of Studies that they chaired ex officio acquired authority for academic disciplines. In the same period, national government began to invest heavily in higher education, allowing institutions to exercise discretion and expecting them to innovate. Coates' passionate interest in organometallic chemistry research, terse conversational style and characteristic mannerisms seemed to blend with the confidence and trust within universities at the time and are remembered with affection. His contribution is commemorated in the name of the laboratory where second- and third-year undergraduates have learned synthetic chemistry since 1997.

Shared leadership in leaner times (1968-1981)

The period of service of the next head of chemistry, Kenneth Musgrave [for biographical notes click Research Group and then eulogy], was limited by the 1963 regulations to three years, so his service (1968-1971, 1974-7, 1980-1) alternated with that of Coates' successor, Thomas Waddington (1969-81; for biographical notes click Waddington research group). Musgrave, through effectively passing the leadership of organofluorine research to Richard Chambers in 1961, had set about acquiring wide experience in the University's central administration [Dean of Science 1963-5; Pro-vice chancellor (one of two) 1970-8; acting Vice Chancellor 1979] as he worked determinedly to advance the cause of science at Durham. As head he deployed that experience to the full in maintaining the number of research-group leaders at the peak reached in 1966 (17) against a declining undergraduate intake and a fall in universities' revenue from a national government beset by industrial strife. Inevitably, sacrifices had to be made. To free space for the arrival in 1970 of the Waddington group, the contents of the Chemistry Department's seminar library were transferred to the University's Science Library and the west wing's smaller ground-floor laboratory for undergraduate physical chemistry, plus the lecture-preparation room between the Arthur Holmes and Scarbrough theatres, were emptied. In 1976, all workspace in the huts dedicated to Chemistry activities (X-ray crystallography, mass spectrometry, surface-chemistry research, inorganic nuclear-spectroscopy research, radiochemistry teaching) was relinquished in a mass migration to the Chemistry-Geology Building. From its first-year undergraduate laboratory (south wing, ground floor), workspace for the incomers was created in the southernmost bay and the cavernous balance room; the whole of the large laboratory for undergraduate physical chemistry (west wing, ground floor), with the equivalent of its preparation area10, became incomers' workspace also. The usage of the north-wing, ground-floor teaching laboratory doubled in consequence. Yet research-group-leader posts vacated since the departure of Coates were filled by the appointment of Keith Dillon (1970), Joseph Howard (1978) and Clifford Ludman (1969) and two internal professorships were created (Chambers, 1976; Clark, 1979). The high-activity radiation facility was refurbished (1981), a well-found suite for high-pressure research was built (1981) and the University's newly created health-and-safety office11 was placed firmly on the Science Laboratories site (1978), initiating a reorientation and relocation of central administration from the centre of town that would take 34 years to complete. Waddington too showed interest in central administration (Dean of Science 1976-8 and 1979, Easter Term), though he maintained strong research interests, particularly in the inelastic scattering of neutrons. In the summer of 1980 Tom Waddington began to suffer ill health. He passed away in May 1981, some two years after the senior lecturer in X-ray crystallography, Harry Shearer, who had died in service also. Both are commemorated by undergraduate prizes funded from public subscription. In 1981, at the beginning of May, Ken Musgrave gave notice of his intention to take early retirement at the end of September that year. Later in May, at a meeting of the rest of the Board of Studies in Chemistry chaired by the Vice Chancellor, members resolved that its chairmen be selected from professors of chemistry and serve normally for three years. The Board authorised its secretary to canvass members individually and then pass the name of its preferred successor to the Vice Chancellor. By the end of May, Musgrave had appointed his successor as acting Head for four months. An endowed biennial lecture and the naming of the Department's seminar room commemorate Musgrave's service. His departure removed the Department's last strong link to the paternalism and deference associated of old with professors in universities; chemistry in Durham was deposited at a crossroads.


1a. Batho, Gordon R. A man of science: James Finlay Weir Johnston (1796-1855). History Educ.Soc.occas.publns, 5(1980). 1b. Knight, D.M. Johnston, James Finlay Weir (1796-1855) in Dictionary of National Biography (2002, new edition 2007); extended version in Dictionary of nineteenth-century British scientists. (Bristol: Thoemmes Continuum, 2004). 2. Durham University Registrar's Office, Book: Durham University Calendar (Durham: Durham University, series, published each October, ending in 2009) - each edition lists serving academic staff, with status and subject specialism, and content/regulations for taught courses; periodically, editions before 1939 name new graduates. 3. Watkinson, C.D. Thomas Richardson (1816-1867) in Dictionary of National Biography (2007 edition). 4. Turner, G.G., Book: Newcastle upon Tyne School of Medicine (1934).The College of Medicine, founded in 1834 as the School of Medicine and Surgery, had renamed itself in 1852 when its tuition had reached undergraduate standard, leading to graduation from Durham University and, by 1870, the name of Durham University College of Medicine.] 5a. Fowler, J.T., Book: Durham University: earlier foundations and present colleges (London: Robinson, 1904). 5b. Whiting, C.E., Book: The University of Durham 1832-1932. (London: Sheldon Press, 1932). 6. Fraser, C.M., Book: An outline history of the Newcastle division of the University of Durham (1961). 7. Prowse, W.A., Booklet: University science in Durham 1924-74. (Durham: Durham University Science Faculty, 1974). 8. University of Durham, Durham Colleges Gazette, 3(1952), 13 (Jan-Feb). [Arthur James Dawson (1859-1943), Durham County Council's Director of Education from 1918, delivered the Council's crucial support, from 1918, during the University's establishment of (1) its Department of Education (1922: for training graduates to teach in secondary schools) and (2) its Department of Pure Science (1924: to produce science graduates and undertake scientific research). He was knighted in 1931.] 9. University of Durham Department of Science, Booklet: Conversazione, 14 November 1931 (Durham: Durham University, 1931). 10. Professor Robin Harris, footnote 3. 11. In 1975 the Government's Heath and Safety at Work Act was applied to higher education and Durham University appointed its first University health-and-safety adviser Mel Kilner's Research Group.
[For events in the Department in 1981-1983, see Heads of Department: Professor David Clark.]

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