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Alexander William Williamson

Alexander William Williamson FRS (May 1, 1824May 6, 1904), English chemist, was born at Wandsworth, London.


After working under Leopold Gmelin at Heidelberg, and Justus von Liebig at Gießen, Williamson spent three years in Paris studying higher mathematics under Comte. In 1849, he was appointed professor of practical chemistry at University College, London, and from 1855 until his retirement in 1887 he also held the professorship of chemistry. His death occurred on the 6th of May 1904, at Hindhead, Surrey, England.

Research on ether

Williamson is credited for his research on the formation of ether by the interaction of sulphuric acid and alcohol, 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.

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.

Honours and awards

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.

Williamson and the Chōshū Five

In 1863 five students from the Chōshū clan in Japan came to study in London under the guidance of Professor Williamson. They were Ito Shunsuke (later Ito Hirobumi), Inoue Monta (later Inoue Kaoru), and Yamao Yozo. Endo Kinsuke and Nomura Yakichi (later Inoue Masaru). They all later made enormous contributions to the modernization of Japan.


  • G. Carey Foster (1911). "Gedächtnisfeier: Alexander William Williamson". Berichte der deutschen chemischen Gesellschaft 44 (3): 2253–2269.

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