30% discount off Royal Society Notes and Records

BSHS members get an exclusive 30% off a personal subscription to Notes and Records.

20% discount off Ashgate publications

BSHS members get an exclusive 20% off all Ashgate publications.

Visit Ashgate

Obituary of Colin Russell, eminent historian of chemistry and past President of the BSHS

///Obituary of Colin Russell, eminent historian of chemistry and past President of the BSHS

Obituary of Colin Russell, eminent historian of chemistry and past President of the BSHS

Updated on 18 July 2013 with a full-length obituary by Peter Morris from the RSC Historical Group Newsletter, July 2013.

Professor Colin Russell died at home on 17 May after a long illness. The RSC Historical Group had been founded in 1975, but Russell laid the foundations for the Group as we know it today in his period as Chairman between 1977 and 1982. As Alec Campbell remarked in an appreciation in the January 1983 newsletter, Russell “immediately addressed himself to enlarging the Group’s sphere of influence. The fact that the Group now has an established place in the programme of the Annual Congress, alongside the large Divisions of the R.S.C., is due to Colin’s detailed knowledge of the interplay of forces within the history of science in this country, and his personal commitment to the notion of the history of chemistry as an integral part of living chemistry.” I would add that his close links with the RSC and in particular his rapport with its conference organisers—John Gibson, Angela Fish and Stanley Langer—were also crucial. The historical sessions and the ever-popular public lecture at the RSC Annual Congresses were the main focus of the group’s activity for many years. I recall the Annual Congress in Bristol in April 1979, when Russell identified a house in Hotwells as Beddoes’s home, probably with the help of a local informant. One evening, we all crowded into a bemused middle-aged couple’s narrow kitchen as Russell and David Knight held forth on the history of the Pneumatic Institute and Humphry Davy. Through his good relationship with J. W. Barrett, Russell enabled the inclusion of a historical session in the triennial Priestley conferences sponsored by the BOC Gases Division Trust. These sessions, often organised by Russell, led to some excellent conferences; for example, the one on the history of ozone at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania in June 1994. These conferences had the advantage that they were always published as RSC special publications and hence taken by most university libraries. The Group Newsletter was also established during his chairmanship, initially in an A4 format. Russell handed over the Chairmanship to Campbell at the end of 1982, but he remained a loyal committee member for several years. He delivered the Historical Group’s Wheeler Memorial Lecture on “The Origins of Organometallic Chemistry” in 2009.

Colin Archibald Russell was born in Streatham, London, on 9 July 1928. His father was a branch manager for an insurance company and his mother had been a teacher before her marriage. For several generations there had been a chemist or pharmacist on the Russell side of the family. Colin, his son and his grandson have maintained this tradition. He was taught by Frank Greenaway (later Keeper of Chemistry at the Science Museum) at Epsom Grammar School. He took an external London BSc in chemistry at University College, Hull. He was an organic chemistry lecturer at Kingston Technical College (now Kingston University) between 1950 and 1959, and at Harris College, Preston (now the University of Central Lancashire) in 1959-1970. His field of specialisation as an organic chemist was heterocyclic chemistry and he always considered himself to be a chemist first and foremost. While at Kingston, Colin became interested in the history of chemistry, and took an M.Sc. (1958) and Ph.D. (1962) in the history and philosophy of science at University College London. His monograph on the history of valency published in 1971, based on his Ph.D., remains a classic in the field. As a result, he was asked by Sir Harold Hartley to take over his uncompleted biography of Berzelius, but this never came to pass, a lacuna which all historians of chemistry must regret. Russell also developed his writing skills in the 1960s, co-authoring An Introduction to the Physics and Chemistry of Baking (1963)—which sold well and went into a third edition in 1980—and revised F. W. Gibbs’ Organic Chemistry Today for Penguin (1970). He was then called to the newly-founded Open University (OU) in Milton Keynes in 1970 as a Senior Lecturer to establish the history of science and technology within the Arts Faculty. Such was his success in entrenching the subject within the university, that it soon became a separate discipline and then a department within the faculty and Russell became a Reader. He also set up a History of Chemistry Research Group, thus making the OU one of the world’s leading centres for the history of chemistry in the 1980s, perhaps second only to the Center for the History of Chemistry (CHOC, now the Chemical Heritage Foundation) in Philadelphia. In retirement, he became a research scholar in the History and Philosophy of Science Department at Cambridge University and a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, Cambridge.

Almost as soon as he joined the Open University, Russell began to develop a two pronged strategy for the promotion of the history of science and technology. To show its value for the arts as a whole, the group would contribute to interdisciplinary courses, such as his unit on Humphry Davy for the “Age of Revolutions” course (A202) and his unit on the Copernican revolution for the “Renaissance and Reformation” course (A201). To reach across the whole university, they would develop a social history of science and technology course and a cultural history of scientific ideas course. The first social history course was “Science and the Rise of Technology” (AST281) in 1973. He fought hard, against considerable resistance, for the cross-faculty designation as he wanted to show that the history of science and technology was not just an “arts” subject, but central to modern science and technology as well. He was fortunate in receiving the full support of the first Dean of Arts, Professor John Ferguson. He greatly respected Ferguson, a renowned classicist, for his educational work in Africa, his willingness to support innovation and his Christian faith. Being able to show films on television to a large audience for perhaps the first time in a history of science and technology course, Russell filmed several obsolescent industrial processes, including the last lead chamber plant in Britain just before it was demolished. He was assisted by Archibald Clow, the co-author of The Chemical Revolution, who had become a producer of OU programmes for the BBC and revealed himself to be a natural television presenter. For this course, he also wrote a course unit, The New Chemical Industry, with his old teacher, Greenaway. He became increasingly concerned about the loss of material about the chemical industry and set up a project to record the archives of the industry. He obtained internal funding for a research fellowship and with the research fellow (Peter Morris), he published Archives of the British Chemical Industry, 1750-1914 (1988). This project confirmed his belief that the history of the chemical industry has been excessively influenced by the ultimate winners, usually large firms, when in fact the bulk of the industry historically consisted of small, often short-lived, firms. He wrote thumbnail sketches of many of these small firms in Archives.

As a staunch Christian, Russell had an abiding interest in the relationship between science and religion, with a strong contempt for the so-called “conflict thesis” which he regarded as completely unhistorical. With David Goodman (an observant Jew), he was instrumental in the development of the new cultural history of scientific ideas course, “Science and Belief: From Copernicus to Darwin” (AMST283) in 1973, which may have been one of the first undergraduate courses in the subject. This course brought him into contact with the Dutch historian of science Reijer Hooykaas whom he held in high regard as a historian and as a person. Russell felt that Christianity had been unfairly neglected in the social history of science, an oversight which he tried to put right in Science and Social Change in Britain and Europe 1700-1900 (1984). He gave the Templeton Lectures at Cambridge in 1993, which were published as The Earth, Humanity and God (1994). He was a president of Christians in Science and he sat on the advisory board of the Faraday Institute in Cambridge. He also published Cross-currents: Interactions between Science and Faith in 1985 and Michael Faraday: Physics and Faith in 2000. His concern with the Christian stewardship of environment as a chemist led him to be one of the founders of the John Ray Initiative in 1997, and to write Saving Planet Earth: A Christian Response (2008).

Russell was eager to forge close links with the chemistry department at the OU and he once told me that he would have been happy for the History of Chemistry Research Group to have been located within that department, but the chemists were less keen. However he persuaded them to include a historical component to a third-level course on “The Nature of Chemistry” (S304) and he contributed three units based on his thesis entitled “The Structure of Chemistry”, described by W. H. Brock as “a very useful study of the development of structural ideas”. Significantly this course was launched in 1976 and by the 1980s all links with the chemistry department had practically ceased.

To mark the centenary of the Royal Institute of Chemistry (soon to become the Royal Society of Chemistry), Russell was commissioned by the Institute to write Chemists by Profession: The Origins and Rise of the Royal Institute of Chemistry with his OU colleagues, Gerrylynn K. Roberts and Noel G. Coley, which was published in 1977. One of his proudest moments was presenting a leather-bound copy of the book to the Prime Minister James Callaghan. Through the Historical Group, he became a close friend and admirer of Campbell at the University of Newcastle. Russell then studied the short-lived but influential Newcastle Chemical Society (and its leading light, Algernon Freire-Marreco), and the industrial activities of Frank Clarke Hills. In the course of this research he decided to carry out a computer-based prosopographical study of the members of the Newcastle Chemical Society using a mainframe computer. Sadly this project never fulfilled its ambitious objective, partly because the database format used quickly became obsolete, but it laid the ground for the later successful database project, “Studies of the “British Chemical Community, 1881-1972”, led by Roberts. Russell then played a leading role in the late 1980s in the development of AS283 “The Rise of Scientific Europe” and he was enthusiastic about the opportunity to show the history of science in different European countries on television. With his course team colleague, David Goodman (also recently deceased), he edited the still valuable textbook The Rise of Scientific Europe, 1500-1800 in 1991.

While Russell was living in Preston, he discovered that Edward Frankland had been born in the nearby village of Catterall. Russell approached Frankland’s biography initially as a local history project and made the astounding discovery that he was the illegitimate son of a local landowner Edward Gorst (and hence a relative of the then well-known right-wing MP Sir John Gorst). This line of research led ultimately to the publication of Lancastrian Chemist: The Early Years of Sir Edward Frankland in 1986, which was published under his name, but was very much a joint effort with his wife Shirley, a trained historian. He then published a full biography entitled Edward Frankland: Chemistry, Controversy and Conspiracy in Victorian England ten years later. During the research for these books, he discovered an important and hitherto unknown collection of Frankland correspondence still in the hands of the Frankland family, which he together with his wife, microfilmed and indexed for the benefit of other scholars. They published “The Archives of Sir Edward Frankland: Resources, Problems and Methods” in the British Journal for the History of Science in 1990. He then had the idea of creating a computerised index to the microfilms which would then drive the microfilm reader. This entailed the installation of one of the first PCs at the Arts Faculty of the OU in 1982, the futuristic-looking Superbrain II. After two decades of negotiation between Russell and the family, this archive was deposited in the John Rylands Library in 2009, an event which he regarded as one of his major achievements. In the 1980s, Russell became increasingly concerned about the relationship between the chemical industry and the environment. He obtained the funding for one of the first research fellowships in the history of the chemical industry and the environment (held by Sarah Wilmot), and with Coley, Campbell and Wilmot, he published Chemistry, Society and Environment: A New History of the British Chemical Industry in 2000. Ashgate published a collection of his articles in its Variorum series in 2010, including an important paper on the history of organic synthesis which first appeared in Ambix in 1987 and the paper on the Frankland archive. A long-standing interest in the history of railways finally resulted in Early Railway Chemistry and its Legacy (2011), co-authored with John Hudson.

Unusually for a professional historian of chemistry, Russell was a Fellow of the RSC and a member of Council between 1999 and 2002. Russell became increasingly concerned in the 1980s about the future of the history of chemistry among chemists and at large. He encouraged RSC Publications to take a stronger role in the promotion of the history of chemistry. One result was the Recent Developments in the History of Chemistry, based on the model of the Specialist Periodical Reports of the RSC, which appeared in 1985. It was not repeated as regularly as Russell initially hoped, partly because of the difficulty of finding suitable authors, but he edited a follow-up volume Chemical History: Reviews of the Recent Literature with Roberts in 2005. For several years it seemed that the history of science would be included in the new National Curriculum and Russell worked hard to ensure that the history of chemistry would be given a suitably prominent position. One result of this drive to promote history of chemistry in schools was the series of coloured wall-charts launched by the RSC in 1992, which sadly petered out after the first wave of charts on organic chemistry (Russell), industrial chemistry (Campbell), chemical atomic and molecular theory (Coley), and analytical chemistry (Morris).

In the late 1980s, Russell obtained “seed money” from the Wellcome Trust to set up a centre for the history of chemistry. He had hoped that Unilever would offer him accommodation at the 18th century mansion Colworth House, Sharnbrook, near his home in Bedford as the firm was dropping the house as their research centre. But it became a science centre instead and Russell did not think the house in Port Sunlight offered by Unilever instead was large enough. The centre was very nearly established at the Open University’s base in Cambridge until it transpired at the last moment that the floor loading was inadequate for the library that Russell had planned. He then rejected alternatives that he felt were not suitable for the kind of centre he had in mind, including a proposed site at the Open University, and returned the money to the Wellcome Trust. It has to be regretted that Russell’s efforts to promote academic history of chemistry have left no permanent mark, as the History of Research Group at the Open University has ceased to exist and the History of Science, Technology and Medicine Department was absorbed into the History Department in 2008.

Russell became the Professor of the History of Science at the Open University in 1981 and retired in 1993, becoming a Visiting Research Professor. He was made an Emeritus Professor in 1995. He was president of the British Society for the History of Science from 1986 to 1988 and gave his Presidential Address on “’Rude and Disgraceful Beginnings’: A View of History of Chemistry from the Nineteenth Century”. He received a D.Sc. from the University of London in 1978. He was presented with the Dexter Award for lifetime achievement in the history of chemistry by the American Chemical Society in 1990 and the David W. Mellor Medal for Chemical Education from the University of New South Wales in 1995.

He first met his wife Shirley in 1948, when they were both at University College Hull, and they married in 1954. They had four children, Caroline, Jeremy, Kate and Helena. As Milton Keynes hardly existed in 1970, the family settled in Bedford, where a Service of Thanksgiving was held at the Bunyan Meeting on 30 May 2013.

 I worked with Russell at the Open University between 1982 and 1991, with a two and a half year gap in the mid-1980s when I worked at CHOC. His hallmark was his modesty, despite his many achievements, and he was always genuinely surprised when his work was recognised in some way. I remember his astonishment when I told him the theologian and physicist Fr. Stanley Jaki regarded his work on science and religion very highly. A man of deep faith, he had a strong sense of fairness and justice. Russell was the enemy of error wherever it was found and he was anxious for all historians of chemistry to achieve the highest professional standards. He was always generous in his help to any scholar or chemist-historian who approached him for assistance. Having struggled in his earlier years as a historian, he was devoted to supporting younger scholars such as myself and he was particularly saddened by the early death in a car accident of Christine King, in whose career he had invested great hopes. Russell had a gentle sense of humour and loved to tell stories, usually with a quizzical look to gauge the listener’s reaction. Many of these stories revealed his enthusiasm for chemistry and the history of chemistry which he regarded as indivisible. He was immensely energetic in everything he did from promoting parliamentary links for the RSC, preserving archives or preaching sermons. He was a keen badminton player in his 50s and a dedicated hill-walker; it was sad to witness his growing physical frailty in his later years. The Historical Group has lost a great supporter and the history of chemistry will be the poorer for his passing.

 John Hudson writes of Russell as follows:

Colin retained a boyish enthusiasm for railways, especially steam locomotives. At the Service of Thanksgiving held for Colin, two of his children described how at a tender age they had been roused from their beds late at night to watch a steam special pass close to their house. But he also knew that chemists had played a vital role in the railway industry from the earliest days, although no detailed study of their activities had as yet been undertaken. When I approached Colin with the proposal to research the topic in depth, he readily agreed to supervise me as a PhD student. I found that his comments and criticisms were always helpful and constructive. After I moved to the Lake District, supervisions often took place after a convivial lunch either at his holiday home at Oxenholme or at my house at Loweswater. It was an honour to be his last PhD student and to collaborate with him on his final book. With his passing I have lost both a mentor and a friend.

By | 2017-11-10T09:54:02+00:00 May 22nd, 2013|BSHS Announcements|Comments Off on Obituary of Colin Russell, eminent historian of chemistry and past President of the BSHS

About the Author: