The Department of Chemistry is one of the oldest and most prestigious in the University. Its origins date back to the foundation of Owens College in 1851, when a half-time chair in chemistry was created by the College Trustees. The first occupant of the chair was (Sir) Edward Frankland (1825-1899), who remained at Owens until 1857. Frankland, then at the start of a distinguished career, is now best remembered as the 'father of valency' and for inventing the science of organo-metallic chemistry. However, it was his successor, (Sir) Henry Roscoe (1833-1915), professor from 1857 to 1886, who succeeded in building up a national reputation for the department.
Roscoe was one of the towering figures in the early history of Owens College, playing a leading role in its expansion after the move to Oxford Road in the early 1870s. Roscoe ensured that chemistry was one of the best-funded and high-profile departments in the College. Strongly influenced by his experience of German universities, he was determined that scientific research would play an vital part in the College's work. As a chemist, Roscoe was known for his work on photo-chemistry, but most particularly for his isolation of vanadium from ores obtained at Alderley Edge, Cheshire, and for two standard works,Lessons in elementary chemistry (1870) and, with Carl Schorlemmer, A treatise on chemistry(3 vols. 1878-95). His lasting achievement, however, was to establish a successful school of chemical research at Owens, with staff who included Carl Schorlemmer, W. Dittmar, T.E. Thorpe, A. Smithells, J.B. Cohen, Thomas Carnelly, W.C. Williams, Harry Baker and George H. Bailey.
Roscoe took great care to establish modern laboratory facilities at the College, playing close attention to Continental examples. The chemical laboratories which opened at the Oxford Road site in 1872 were considered to be the best in the country. Roscoe set up the first chair in organic chemistry in 1874, which was occupied by Carl Schorlemmer (1834-1892) until 1892. He was sensitive to the need to relate teaching and research to the requirements of the local industrial community. He also encouraged the teaching of metallurgy (he was professor of the subject from 1884-1886). By the time of Roscoe's resignation in 1886, chemistry was one of the most popular subjects at Owens College.
Roscoe was succeeded as professor of chemistry in 1886 by Harold Baily Dixon (1852-1930), who remained as head of department until 1922. In 1892, W.H. Perkin Jr. (1860-1929) became professor of organic chemistry, remaining at Manchester until 1912. Under their leadership, the Chemistry Department gained an international reputation for its research work. The Department was run on a centralised model, headed by the two professors, with advanced research as the basis of its work. To achieve this, Dixon and Perkin greatly expanded laboratory facilities: the Schorlemmer laboratory was opened in 1895, followed by Frankland, Dalton and Schunck laboratories in 1904. [This latter building, the laboratory and library of Edward Schunck, a leading local chemist, was moved stone-by-stone from Kersal to Burlington St]. These were followed in 1909 by the John Morley laboratories for organic chemistry, which included private laboratory for the professor, a large teaching laboratory and a dozen research laboratories.
A number of the Department's staff and students of this period went on to hold chairs in other universities including Robert Robinson and Walter N. Haworth. But perhaps the best known member of the Department was Chaim Weizmann (1874-1952), first president of Israel, who undertook important research into the anaerobic fermentation of carbohydrates (used for the industrial production of acetone) during his time at the University between 1904-1916.
Arthur Lapworth succeeded Perkin in 1912, and became the senior professor of chemistry and Director of the Chemical Laboratories in 1922. Lapworth made notable contributions to the chemistry of camphor, and to the study of hydrogen ions. He also did important work on the principle of alternate polarities. During this period, research was carried out by Dixon, W.A. Bone and R.V. Wheeler and others on explosions in gases and combustion of hydrocarbons, by F.B. Burt and E.C. Edgar in determining the hydrogen-oxygen ratio in water, and by Burt and D.H. Bangham on the sorption of gases in solid surfaces; in organic chemistry, important work was carried out on the constitutions of terpenes and naturally occurring products.
In 1923, a former student and future Nobel Prize-winner, (Sir) Robert Robinson (1886-1975), was appointed professor of organic chemistry. He worked closely with Lapworth, now professor of chemistry, on the electronic theory of organic reactions. Robinson also carried out important work on the structure of alkaloids and colouring matters. In 1928, Robinson moved to a chair in organic chemistry at University College London, and his post was not filled until the appointment of (Sir) Ian Morris Heilbron (1886-1959) in 1933. Keen to exploit new techniques, Heilbron brought in equipment for micro-analysis, adsorption chromatography, low pressure distillation, and ultra-violet spectroscopy. He redesigned the honours course in chemistry and oversaw alterations to the laboratories. His own research interests were in the area of vitamins and hormones, and the analysis of natural products, such as fish liver oils, crayfish, pig bile and oysters, was an important component of Department's organic work. In 1933, Michael Polanyi (1891-1976) arrived from Berlin to become the first professor of physical chemistry. When Lapworth retired in 1935, the undivided chair of chemistry was discontinued.
Polanyi was a polymath with interests in the social sciences as well as chemistry. Well-known for his work on thermodynamics, especially chemical kinetics and transition-state theory, he built up the Department's reputation for physical chemistry. He introduced new lines of research, established research colloquia and oversaw important research work in the field of reaction kinetics. Departmental staff in the 1930s and 1940s included Colin Campbell, Fred Fairbrother, George Burkhardt, D.H. Hey, A.E. Gill, and Ewart Jones. In 1938, when Alexander Todd (1907-1997) was appointed to succeed Heilbron as professor of organic chemistry; aged 31, he was the youngest professor of chemistry at Manchester since Frankland. Todd carried out path-breaking work on vitamins, and, during the war years, on penicillin and anti-malarials, for which he was later to win a Nobel Prize. Todd left for Cambridge in 1944, and was succeeded by E.L. Hirst, professor between 1945-1947, and he in turn was followed by Ewart Jones (1911-2002) in 1948. Polanyi resigned as professor of physical chemistry in 1948 to take up a personal chair in social studies; he was replaced by M.G. Evans. Both Jones and Evans had worked previously with Heilbron and Polanyi.
The post-war period saw an expansion in laboratory facilities with the opening of the Robinson undergraduate laboratory and the Arthur Lapworth laboratories for physical chemistry. In the 1950s, the University put forward radical plans to develop a science area on the east side of Oxford Road, opposite to the main building. Chemistry moved to the new buildings in the early 1960s.
Following the death of Evans, Geoffrey Gee became professor of physical chemistry in 1953. Gee (1910-1996) had already made outstanding contributions to polymer chemistry before coming to Manchester, and this subject now became an important part of the Department's teaching and research work. Jones resigned in 1955 and was succeeded by A.J. Birch. By the mid-1950s some 750 students were studying chemistry and over 100 staff and researchers were members of the Department. In the late 1950s and 1960s, research work in physical chemistry was undertaken in the areas of polymer chemistry, X-ray analysis of organo-metallic compounds, thermochemistry, chemical reactions induced by X- and gamma-ray radiation; on the organic side, staff interests included the chemistry of natural products, the biochemistry of fungal metabolites, stereochemistry and the biosynthesis of antibiotics.
A number of staff changes were made in the 1960s, with the number of chairs increasing. Fred Fairbrother was made professor of inorganic chemistry in 1960, retiring in 1962. He was succeeded by J. Lewis. G.R. Barker was appointed to a new chair of biological chemistry in 1964, and Geoffrey Allen was professor of chemical physics from 1965-1974. In 1967, K.W. Bagnall succeeded J. Lewis as professor of inorganic chemistry and William Byers-Brown became the first professor of theoretical chemistry. In 1970 J. K. Sutherland was appointed professor of organic chemistry.
In the 1970s and 1980s, between 550-650 students were members of the Department, including around 120 engaged in research. By the 1990s, the Department was organised into three teaching sections, physical, organic and inorganic, and six research sections: inorganic, organic, physical, theoretical/computational, polymer and structural. The research interests of the Department in recent years have included: in inorganic chemistry, biological and biomimetic chemistry of d-transition metals, radiochemistry, environmental chemistry, electron paramagnetic resonance spectroscopy and surface chemistry; in organic chemistry, new synthetic methods using organometallic reagents, asymmetric synthesis, the synthesis of active natural products, and the synthesis of compounds for chemotherapeutic use; in physical chemistry, the dynamical motion of molecular systems driven by experimental peturbation; in polymer chemistry, research work has been undertaken in organic-polymer chemistry, polymerization, physico-chemical properties, theoretical chemistry and the molecular engineering for specific purposes; in structural chemistry, crystal growth and X-ray crystallography, and the use of X-ray diffraction methods for structure determination; and in theoretical and computational chemistry, electronic structures of molecules, elastic, inelastic and reactive scattering of small molecules, statistical mechanics of condensed phases, involving liquid crystals and polymers, and computational developments using vector and parallel supercomputers.
In 2004 the Department of Chemistry together with its counterpart at UMIST was succeeded by the new School of Chemistry of The University of Manchester.