Sir James Colquhoun Irvine (1877-1952) was born in Glasgow, won an open scholarship at Allan Glen's School, Glasgow and entered Royal Technical College aged 16. In 1895 he arrived at the University of St Andrews as lecture assistant to Thomas Purdie, matriculated as a student and graduated B.Sc. in 1898 with special distinction in chemistry and natural science. He started his career in research even before his graduation and in 1899 was awarded an 1851 Exhibition Scholarship. He worked in Leipzig with Wislicenus, studying also under Ostwald and attending lectures by Bechmann, Stobbe and Pfeffer. In 1901 his thesis gained him a Ph.D summa cum laude.
He returned to St Andrews in 1901 as a junior lecturer and to work with Purdie on investigations of the carbohydrates, in which subject he made his major contributions to scientific discovery. His work included studies of the chemistry of sugars, cellulose and starch. During the First World War he worked on producing bacteriological sugars and related substances, and novocaine and othoform for the army and navy medical services. He worked on research problems for the chemical warfare and propellant supplies departments including searching for large-scale methods of preparing mustard gas. He obtained his D.Sc. in 1903, became Professor of Chemistry in 1909 and Dean of the Faculty of Science in 1912, posts which he held until his appointment as Principal of the University in 1921.
As a teacher Irvine was outstanding, his eloquent presentation of his subjects commanding the attention of all his students and inspiring many to follow chemistry as a career in both academic and industrial fields. He was a fine experimentalist and manipulator and stressed the practical side of his subject. He worked long hours and expected the same of his staff and students. A strict disciplinarian, he was yet easy to approach and always encouraging and helpful if the case was good. He was noted for his eloquence as a student and became internationally famous for it as a principal.
The welfare of his students was Irvine's prime concern and he succeeded in making St Andrews largely a residential university as it had been in the past. He revived old customs and traditions, improved many buildings, found donors for a new graduation hall and for the renovation of St Salvator's Chapel and the restoration of St Leonard's chapel. He widened the field of recruitment of students and raised the numbers to an economically viable level. In Dundee the schools of medicine, engineering and chemistry were expanded and he worked on improving college finances. The hostility between the two parts of the University, in St Andrews and Dundee resulted eventually in a Royal Commission in 1951-2. Irvine held strong opinions and had to face opposition and criticism. The word 'autocratic' was applied to him but his was always benevolent autocracy and even his greatest enemies could not deny his devotion to his university.
Irvine travelled extensively in the interests of education. He went to India as chairman of the viceroy's committee on the Indian Institute of Science in 1936; to the West Indies as chairman of the committee on higher education in 1944, and in later years as the prime mover in founding the University College of the West Indies. He was chairman of the Inter-University Council for Higher Education in the Colonies from its formation in 1946 until 1951. He served on educational bodies such as the Carnegie Trust, the Scottish Universities Entrance Board and the prime minister's committee on the training of biologists (1933). He was a member of the Pilgrim Trust with Edward Harkness in America and on the Committee of the Commonwealth Fund. He was renowned for his penetrating judgement and clarity of expression, being practical in outlook and level headed in action.
Irvine was elected FRS. in 1918, knighted in 1925, appointed CBE in 1920 and KBE in 1948. He received a number of medals from learned societies and honorary degrees from many universities. His services to Polish and Norwegian forces in Scotland during the 1939-45 war were recognised by decorations from their countries.
[Sources: Alumnus Chronicle, January 1953, John Read in Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society, no. 22, Nov 1953, David Traill in D.N.B., (Oxford, 1975).]