James Walker (1863-1935)

by W. P. Doyle

James Walker was born in Dundee on 6 April 1863, the only child of James Walker, a flax merchant, and Susan (nee Cairns). After attending the High School of Dundee he decided on a business career and for three years was apprenticed to a flax and jute spinner. During his apprenticeship he attended evening science classes under an enthusiastic and inspiring teacher who stimulated in him a serious interest in science. As a result when at the end of his apprenticeship he was offered the choice of going to Russia for further experience in the flax trade or of entering a university he decided on the latter course and entered the University of Edinburgh in 1882 to study for the B.Sc. Degree in Physical Science. The First Year Class in Chemistry was primarily for medical students and Walker was already familiar with much of the material but as he wrote: 'Entering the advanced class was like entering a new world. Crum Brown's lectures on organic chemistry were of enthralling interest. He selected a few topics, and discussing them in detail really gave one an idea of what scientific method meant'. Walker graduated B.Sc. in 1885 and being now determined on an academic career in chemistry he continued to work in the laboratory mostly on quantitative analysis. In 1884-5 Chemistry had moved from Old College to the new Medical building in Teviot Place where the laboratory facilities were vastly superior to the accommodation in Old College. Among Walker's few fellow-workers were Hugh Robert Mill, P.C. Ray, David Orme Masson, subsequently Professor in the University of Melbourne, and a lasting friend of Walker's Alexander Smith, subsequently Professor at Columbia University. At that time the Degree of D.Sc. could be obtained one year after graduation as Bachelor of Science by a combination of a thesis on a small research topic and examination and Walker graduated D.Sc. in 1886. After a year as a demonstrator he decided, as was then practically imperative for anyone seeking an academic career in chemistry, to spend some time in a German University. His inclinations were towards physical chemistry and in particular towards Ostwald's work. However he was advised against going to Riga, where Ostwald then was, and finally decided to go to Baeyer's laboratory in Munich; there he worked under Claisen for the winter session. During this time Ostwald was appointed Professor at Leipzig and Walker, returning to his original intention, went to work under Ostwald with whom he spent 18 months working on the affinity constants of bases and he was awarded the Ph.D. Degree in 1889. For most of Walker's time in Leipzig, Arrhenius was an independent worker in Ostwald's laboratory.

Walker returned to Edinburgh and was, for three years, privately employed as research assistant to Crum Brown. He was not on the University staff but gave courses of lectures to advanced students on various aspects of physical chemistry. Of the research side Walker wrote -

My work with Crum Brown was interesting, if arduous. He was brimful of ideas and my chief difficulty was to get one tried out before the next one came along. He had lost touch with laboratory work, and had little appreciation of practical difficulties. One day he mentioned that he had once electrolysed sodium ethyl tartrate in the hope of preparing, by an electrosynthesis analogous to that of Kolbe, the ethyl ester of a tetrahydroxyadipic acid, but had not succeeded in obtaining anything. This seemed to me an admirable notion, and I thought it would be worthwhile to apply it to a simpler case. As it happened, Crum Brown succumbed to the influenza epidemic then raging, and by the time he returned to duty I was able to show him a quantity of diethyl succinate which I had pre-pared by the electrolysis of potassium ethyl malonate. This opened the way to an extensive research on the electrosynthesis of dibasic acids and on this I was engaged during the rest of my stay with Crum Brown. He was very generous in allotting me time for my own work, so that I was able also to continue research on the physico-chemical lines of Leipzig.

The introduction of the theories of osmotic pressure and electrolytic dissociation into Britain met at first with very strong opposition. The meeting of the British Association at Leeds in 1890 was distinguished by a historic discussion of these theories in which van't Hoff and Ostwald took part. Arrhenius was unable to be present but he asked Walker to read a paper for him which was well received. At this meeting Walker met William Ramsay who was the only eminent British chemist to accept fully the theories of osmotic pressure and electrolytic dissociation and he promptly made up his mind to work in Ramsay's laboratory as soon as an opportunity offered. Thus when in 1892 his electrosynthetic work was practically at an end he moved to Ramsay's laboratory in University College, London, as a research worker in the hope of sooner or later obtaining a teaching post there. This occurred in the following year when he became Ramsay's second teaching assistant. His teaching duties were heavy and he had no time for research work. During this period he met his future wife, Annie Purcell Sedgwick, who was a research student in Ramsay's laboratory.

In 1894 the Chair of Chemistry in University College, Dundee, fell vacant through the resignation of Percy Frankland and Walker was appointed to it. During his fourteen years in Dundee the School of Chemistry slowly grew; with a lighter teaching load than in London Walker was again active in research, often in collaboration with his assistants, and he also extended the existing chemical laboratory which experience stood him in good stead later.

In 1908 Crum Brown resigned from the Edinburgh Chair of Chemistry and Walker and Alexander Smith, who had been close friends since the 1880's, were the two principal candidates for the appointment which was to be made by the Curators of Patronage, seven in number, of whom at that time four were appointed by the Town Council and three by the University Court. It was the custom for applicants for Chairs to 'wait upon' each of the Curators privately to press his claim. However Walker and Smith went, arm in arm, to see each Curator and Walker would tell the Curator what a good man Smith was and Smith would say what a good man Walker was. Apparently Smith was the more persuasive because the Curators voted 4 to 3 for Walker.

By the time of Walker's appointment the Chemical laboratories had become hopelessly inadequate. There was insufficient accommodation for the advanced students for the B.Sc. Degree and the few research students had to be squeezed into any odd corner. Walker at once began to agitate for a new department but was able to secure only a little additional space in Drummond Street, at first in a wooden shed and later in the basement of the Physics Department. Nearly completed plans for a new department in High School Yards were discontinued when the First World War broke out.

In 1915 T.N.T. was required in large quantities and to help meet the demand Walker and others in the Department began production in a disused chemical factory in which management and chemists were teachers, graduates or students of the University. From the beginning the working of the factory was successful and it was the only one to complete its original contract for T.N.T. on time. Other contracts followed and production work, in a factory now transferred to Craigleith quarries, continued until the end of the war .

In the years immediately after the War there was a huge influx of ex-service men into the already inadequate laboratories. A Chair of Chemistry in Relation to Medicine was founded to ease the burden of teaching chemistry to medical students and George Barger was appointed in 1919. The other problem was the provision of laboratories. The eventual outcome was the purchase of the King's Buildings site of 112 acres to provide for several science departments. The building of the School of Chemistry began in November 1919. The laboratories were constructed and occupied in three successive sections to meet the needs of the large classes as they progressed from year to year. The completed building was officially opened by the Prince of Wales in December 1924 immediately subsequent to a less well-publicised opening by Neil Campbell, then a third-year student and now a vigorous professor emeritus. In Neil Campbell's words:

The official opening was timed for 11 o'clock and we were all assembled round the walls of one of the big laboratories. Well time went on and no Prince of Wales and rumour got around that he had dined well with the Buccleuchs the night before and finally a friend said to me 'look here, you look like the Prince of Wales, what about doing it yourself', so I went and got a hat and coat and appeared and one of the students said 'Three cheers for the Prince of Wales' and they all yelled like mad and I went round doffing the hat, and the hand and hat rather hid my face, and they were all cheering fit to burst themselves and I thought I was going to get away with it but one silly ass saw my nose and said 'It's Neil Campbell' and after that I had to run for my life.

The new Department was a tribute to Walker's vision. The laboratories could accommodate 400 undergraduates and one of the main features, for which he was criticised at the time, was the extensive provision made for research workers; there were over 30 research rooms, the smaller rooms accommodating two workers and the larger three or four. Hitherto there had been little incentive for students to stay on after graduation but now that space was available and the research Degree of Ph.D. had been instituted, the number of postgraduates progressively increased. The building was planned for easy expansion; Walker wrote: "The plan admits of indefinite extension by lengthening the building towards the back, and if necessary a second storey can be placed on top of the side rooms". Both of these developments have since taken place. Three years after the move to King's Buildings the staff of the Department of Chemistry comprised Walker, one Reader, seven Lecturers and six Assistants, and there were about 30 research workers and about 250 undergraduates. Technical support comprised a Technical Assistant, a storekeeper , an electrician and a trainee technician. In 1921 the four-year Honours B.Sc., essentially identical in structure with the present Degree, had been introduced. As a physical chemist, Walker was in the first rank. He had a great facility for selecting simple problems of fundamental importance. As a result, his main investigations - on ionisation constants, on hydrolysis, on amphoteric electrolytes and on many other aspects of solution chemistry - have long been incorporated in the standard textbooks and their substance is familiar to first year students. As Ostwald's first British student he was largely instrumental in making known in Britain the then new physico-chemical theories. He translated Ostwald's 'Outlines of General Chemistry' and helped in the defence of the new theories against the strong opposition which they at first encountered. His own 'Introduction to Physical Chemistry' first appeared in 1899 and passed through 10 editions. It was a very readable text and in the early part of this century, more than any other volume, it assisted students towards an easy, yet sound, appreciation of its subject.

The keynote of all Walker's activities was simplicity; in research, in teaching, and in administration he always took the direct route. Another marked trait was his adaptability. In an age of increasing specialisation, he retained to the end an unusually wide range of interests, and kept himself up-to-date in many diverse fields.  He was one of the last chemical all-rounders and he alone marked the Honours B.Sc. scripts covering physical, organic and inorganic chemistry. Student opinion is well represented by Neil Campbell's view - 'He was one of the best lecturers I have ever heard. His main drawback was he made his points so clear and apparently so simple that it wasn't until you got home and began to puzzle it out that you realised how deep he had gone and how much he had given us - he was excellent.' Walker visited each laboratory two or three times a week and he knew a good deal about the students. Mild-mannered but firm his classes were free from the genial disorder which had characterised those of his predecessor, Crum Brown. 'What interested me even then was the lecturers capacity to maintain order in the class. In Chemistry you could have heard a pin drop' wrote one who had been a first-year student in 1915-6. Neil Campbell remembers meeting an engineer of some years standing who still vividly remembered how after failing chemistry he had gone to Walker and said that one of the staff had marked his paper unfairly: without a word Walker began to rise from his chair but such was the look in his eyes that the budding engineer ran from the room and did not stop running until he reached the tram stop.

Of the many honours Walker received, only a few are mentioned here. He was elected F.R.S. in 1900 and was awarded the Davy Medal of the Royal Society in 1926 "for his work on the theory of ionization". He was president of the Chemistry section of the British Association in 1911 and president of the Chemical Society from 1921 to 1923. He was knighted in 1921.

He retired in 1928 and died in Edinburgh on 6 May 1935. The following appreciation by Professor Irvine Masson appeared in 'The Times' of 18 May 1935:

Those who have known Walker for long, in Edinburgh and London and elsewhere, will not forget the quality of his friendship: genial, calm, and clear-sighted, he would put the essence of a human problem as succinctly as that of a scientific one, so that the counsel of policy which followed was straightforward and convincing.  He knew well when to leave his juniors to their own initiative -'Well, try it!' - and when to give a hint; nor did his warm practical interest in his young men flag after they had left him. At the council table his judgement of the occasions for reticence, encouragement, or decisive intervention was unerring. He was a man to whom all his equals looked up; they no less than his disciples now scattered through the world, knew they could find in him an unaffected sanity and a steady friendship.