Photo: Ira Remsen (1846–1927), left, with Constantin Fahlberg (1850–1910). Exhibit at the National Museum of American History, Washington, DC.
On 04 March 1927, Ira Remsen (1846–1927) passed away in Carmel, CA. He was an American chemist who served as the first president of Johns Hopkins University. After completing his education at Columbia University (MD, 1867) and University of Göttingen (PhD, 1870), he discovered the artificial sweetener saccharin (C₇H₅NO₃S) while working with a graduate student, Constantin Fahlberg (1850–1910). Many years later, he was awarded the 1923 Priestley Medal for this research.
His National Academy of Sciences biography notes that: “In his boyhood Remsen was reared in a very strict, religious atmosphere and he retained a simple religious faith throughout his life.” An interesting story recounts an event which inspired his vocational path in chemistry:
“While reading a text-book of chemistry I came upon the statement, ‘nitric acid acts upon copper’ … Having nitric acid and copper, I had only to learn what the words ‘acts upon’ meant. Then the statement, ‘nitric acid acts upon copper’ would be something more than mere words. All was still. In the interest of knowledge, I was even willing to sacrifice one of the few copper cents then in my possession. I put one of them on the table; opened the bottle marked ‘nitric acid’; poured some of the liquid on the copper; and prepared to take an observation. But what was this wonderful thing I beheld ? The cent was already changed, and it was no small change either. A greenish blue liquid foamed and fumed over the cent and over the table. The air in the neighborhood of the performance became colored dark red. A great colored cloud arose… Taking everything into consideration, that was the most impressive experiment, and, relatively, probably the most costly I have ever performed. I tell it even now with interest. It was a revelation to me. It resulted in a desire on my part to learn more about that kind of action. Plainly the only way to learn about it was to see its results, to experiment, to work in a laboratory.’”
In 1902, Prof. Remsen was appointed the president of the American Chemical Society. The following is an excerpt from his ACS presidential address, Washington, DC (20 Dec 1902):
“The first great generalization that was reached after the method of weighing was generally adopted by chemists was what we sometimes call the law of the indestructibility of matter, or, in more refined language, the law of the conservation of mass. Then followed the laws of definite and multiple proportions. Now a law of nature is quite a different thing from a doctrine. A law once discovered does not wither and die. It is eternal. Such a statement cannot be proved to be true. It calls for faith, but faith is called for at every turn in scientific matters as well as in spiritual. Without it progress would be impossible. As I am trying to deal with doctrines and not with laws, let me say that doctrines call for even a larger faith than laws. The very essence of a doctrine is ‘faith in things unseen’. The discovery of the laws of definite and multiple proportions led to the thought of atoms— not the evasive atoms of the Greeks, but atoms that could in a way, be made the subject of experiment — the Daltonian atoms…
“ … J.J. Thomson gives me faith in the thoughts suggested by him. As I understand, it the worst that can be done for chemistry by the corpuscle is to change the atom so slowly that it would take something like a million years to enable us to detect the change by the balance. Perhaps the atomic weights of the elements, or of some of them, are undergoing change. Whether in the course of geological ages the atoms are becoming simpler or more complex is a question that appears idle at first, and yet when we bear in mind the fact that the atoms of our day have already been subjected to a great variety of influences for ages past, and that the atoms that we know are comparatively complex, we may at least suspect that the tendency so far is towards complexity.”
As an educator, he would author eight textbooks and laboratory manuals, several of which exerted an important influence on chemistry education in the following decades. He also founded the American Chemical Journal, which he edited for 35 years. Additionally, he was known for his “lectures on the history of chemistry… In these lectures Remsen proved himself to be a philosopher as well as a scientist.” In response to his teaching and research, it has been said: “Much had been accomplished by a few gifted men in America before Remsen’s day, but he opened up a life work in chemistry as a career to many, and developed a spirit of research that spread over the country.”
—Noyes, William Albert, and James Flack Norris. “Biographical Memoir of Ira Remsen (1846-1927).” (Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences Press, 1931), 207-209.
—Remsen, Ira. “The Life History of a Doctrine.” Journal of the American Chemical Society 25.2 (1903): 115-132.
Image: National Museum of American History, Washington, DC.