Imperial College London chemistry

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Imperial College London chemistry

The Chemistry Department at Imperial spans three centuries, from the nineteenth to the twenty-first. The ancestor both of our present Department and of Imperial College itself was the Royal College of Chemistry (RCC). During the early part of the nineteenth century it became apparent that practical aspects of the experimental sciences were not well taught and that in Britain the instruction of chemistry in particular had fallen behind that in Germany. In Germany such teaching was a national priority, and a new chemical industry was emerging there. In London in the early 1840’s a group of interested people set up an institute to teach practical chemistry; funds were raised from politicians, industrialists and the public, and in 1845 the RCC was set up, initially as a private institution.

The Prince Consort was an enthusiastic supporter and, through his contacts in Germany, persuaded August Wilhelm Hofmann, then only 28, to be the first Professor. The College opened in 1845 with 26 students at 16 Hanover Square (the building still stands). Hofmann was an inspired choice: he was charismatic and a chemist of international renown.

However, the College had financial troubles and in 1846 had to take cheaper premises at 299 Oxford Street. In 1872, with Government support (secured largely with the help of Lyon Playfair, himself a distinguished chemist) the College moved to the not yet occupied building of the School of Naval Architecture in Exhibition Road, South Kensington (now the Henry Cole wing of the Victoria and Albert Museum).

In 1865 Hofmann returned to Germany, and Sir Edward Frankland, the father of organometallic chemistry and a pioneer in the understanding of valency, became head of the department. There were now physics, mathematics and other departments and in 1881 the celebrated biologist T. H. Huxley (‘Darwin’s bulldog’) became Dean.