CodeDS/UK/16
Person NameBrown; Alexander Crum (1838-1922); Professor; chemist
Dates1838-1922
TitleProfessor
Epithetchemist
HistoryAlexander Crum Brown was born in Edinburgh on 26 March 1838. His father was twice married; his son by the first marriage was John Brown, M.D., well known as an Edinburgh physician but who earned a wider fame as the author of 'Rab and his Friends'. His mother's brother, Walter Crum, F.R.S., was a chemist of note and may have influenced Crum Brown's choice of chemistry as a career.

He was educated in the Royal High School, Edinburgh and in 1854 he entered the University of Edinburgh as an Arts student and he graduated M.A. in 1858. He then studied medicine graduating M.D. in 1861. During the same time he read for the science degree of London University, and in 1862 he had the distinction of being the first candidate on whom the Doctorate of Science of London University was conferred. After medical graduation in Edinburgh he studied chemistry in German, first under Bunsen at Heidelberg, and then under Kolbe at Marburg.

In 1863 he was licensed as an Extra-Academical Lecturer in Chemistry by the University of Edinburgh. Each winter session, he gave "a systematic course of Lectures on Chemistry, and taught Practical and Analytical Chemistry". Each summer session he gave a special course of lectures on "one of the higher departments of Chemistry, or on Crystallography". His classes were small, sometimes consisting of only two students. Thus he had ample time for research which he used very profitably so that when, on Playfair's resignation, he applied for the Edinburgh Chair of Chemistry he received the support of nearly all the prominent British chemists and also of many Continental chemists, a total of 39, and also of 12 men of other scientific disciplines.

Crum Brown was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1864 and served on the Council for a total of forty-four years. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1879, was President of the Chemistry Section of the British Association in 1874, and President of the Chemical Society from 1891 to 1893. He retired from the Chair of Chemistry in 1908. Early in his professorial life he had married Jane (nee Porter) whose death two years after his retirement overshadowed the last decade of his life. Failing health confined him to the house, though his mind lost little of its activity, and he died peacefully on 28 October 1922.

Crum Brown's main scientific work was done while he was young. His M.D. thesis was entitled "On the Theory of Chemical Combination" and showed him to be a pioneer in scientific thought. In it he developed a system of graphic formulation of compounds which is essentially identical with that used today. In 1864 he published an important paper on the "Theory of Isomeric Compounds", in which, using his graphic formulae, he discussed the various types of isomerism, paying special attention to fumaric and maleic acids. In 1867 in continuation of his systematic work he published a paper "On the Classification of Chemical Substances by means of Generic Radicals". His breadth of knowledge is shown by a paper in 1867 "On an Application of Mathematics in Chemistry" and in 1868 by a pioneering investigation of fundamental importance on the connection between chemical constitution and physiological action.

For some time after his appointment to the Chair he published little but in 1873 he began a series of investigations of the organic sulphur compounds, particularly derivatives of trimethyl-sulphine, which occupied him for several years. In 1890 he entered a new period of chemical activity with a theoretical paper on the relation of optical activity to the nature of the radicals bonded to the assymetric carbon atom. About the same time he began a series of researches on the synthesis of dibasic acids by the electrolysis of ester-salts. In 1892, in conjunction with John Gibson, he published the well-known rule for determining the position in the benzene nucleus taken up by an entering radical with respect to one already present.

Despite its high calibre Crum Brown's work received scant recognition partly because through loyalty to the Royal Society of Edinburgh he published nearly all his researches in the Society's 'Transactions' and 'Proceedings' whose circulation among chemists was very limited. In addition to his chemical work he made valuable contributions to physiology and published several careful papers on certain branches of mathematics. Outwith science his breadth of knowledge was also exceptional, extending to philology, church history, and modern languages including Russian and Chinese.

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