AMERICAN CHEMIST AND EDUCATOR
Most great chemists are remembered for their research. Ira Remsen, although he contributed significantly to the research of his time, is one of the few chemists remembered mainly for his teaching and mentorship. It was under his leadership that American chemical research came of age in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Remsen was born in New York City on February 10, 1846, into a family that traced its lineage back to seventeenth-century Dutch colonial settlers. In his early schooling, he excelled in the classics and had almost no exposure to science. He attended the New York Free Academy (later the City College of New York), but in accordance with his father's wishes, he left before graduation to become an apprentice to a homeopathic physician. He received an M.D. in 1867 from the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons. His prize-winning thesis, "The Fatty Degeneration of the Liver," was written on the basis of information Remsen gleaned from books without ever seeing a liver. His interest in chemistry had been awakened during medical school, and Remsen resolved upon graduation to further pursue his studies in that field of science.
At that time, there were no American schools that engaged in serious chemical research; the epicenter of the chemical world was Germany, and Remsen embarked for Munich to study under Justus Liebig, the most renowned scholar of the time. Unfortunately, Remsen learned upon his arrival in Munich that Liebig had stopped supervising students. There was, however, no shortage of excellent teachers there. Remsen remained in the German university system for five years, studying under Jacob Volhard, Friedrich Wöhler, and Rudolph Fittig. He received his Ph.D. from Göttingen in 1870 in the newly organized field of organic chemistry.
Upon returning to the United States, Remsen accepted an appointment as a professor of chemistry and physics at Williams College in Massachusetts. There, despite a lack of facilities or administrative encouragement, he managed to continue the research that he had started in Germany. Recognizing the lack of chemistry textbooks in English, he translated Wöhler's Outlines of Organic Chemistry and wrote the first of his eight textbooks, Principles of Theoretical Chemistry. The excellent quality of these books led to Remsen's appointment to the newly founded Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, the first institution in the United States devoted primarily to research. Remsen remained there for thirty-six years, first as professor of chemistry and later as its president (1901–1912). During his tenure, he established the distinctly German tradition of chemistry research that he had learned in his studies in that country.
The research carried out in Remsen's laboratories, although of less lasting import than his teaching, was significant in its time. These studies derived mostly from his earlier work and centered on the reactions of derivatives of substituted benzenes. The artificial sweetener saccharin was discovered, partially by accident, by one of his students. He was also noted for his clear and straightforward teaching style and for his devotion to his students. Under his tutelage, the first great generation of American academic chemists was established across the country.
In 1879 Remsen founded the American Chemical Journal in order both to promote the research being done at Johns Hopkins and elsewhere in the United States and to make this work widely available to American readers. It was the first American journal devoted to chemistry and quickly became recognized for its excellence both at home and abroad. It later merged with the Journal of the American Chemical Society.
Remsen retired in 1912 but remained active as a consultant to the chemical industry. He died on March 4, 1927, in Carmel, California. The next year his ashes were returned to Johns Hopkins and interred behind a bronze memorial tablet in the newly renamed Remsen Hall.
Corwin, Alsoph H. (1976). "Ira Remsen." In The Robert A. Welch Foundation Conferences on Chemical Research, Vol. 20, Chap. 4. Easton, PA: American Chemical Society.
Hannaway, Owen (1976). "The German Model of Chemical Education in America: Ira Remsen at Johns Hopkins (1876–1913)." Ambix 23: 145–164.
Noyes, William A. (1928–1936). "Ira Remsen." In Dictionary of American Biography Base Set. New York: American Council of Learned Societies. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Detroit: Gale Group. Also available from http://www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC .
Noyes, William A., and Norris, James F. (1932). "Ira Remsen." Biographical Memoirs National Academy of Sciences 14: 207–257.