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History - People - Norman Thomas M Wilsmore

Norman Thomas M Wilsmore

Norman Thomas M Wilsmore
(1868 - 1940)

Assistant 1895 - 1896
Assistant 1903 - 1907
Assistant Professor 1907 - 1912

Wilsmore was born in Melbourne, Australia, and was the second (after Irvine Masson) in a long line of academics who came from "Down Under". He arrived in London with a wife (who was, incidentally, the first woman science graduate of U Melbourne), and both a BSc and an MSc, to study with William Ramsay and Norman Collie. He spent 3 years here before heading off to the continent to study at Göttingen with Nernst. During his time there he published a couple of papers (N. T. M. Wilsmore. ¨Ũber Elektroden-Potentiale". Z. phys. Chem., 1900, 35(3), 291-332; V. Rothmund and N. T. M. Wilsmore. "Die Gegenseitigkeit der Löslichkeitsbeeinflussung". Z. phys. Chem., 1902, 40(5) 611-628). Both Nernst and Rothmund reported some of his results at the 1900 and 1901 electrochemical conferences in Zürich and Freiburg. He then moved on to Zürich where he worked at ETH with Lorenz.

Wilsmore's signature from Sir William Ramsay's guest book, from the entry dated March 20th 1897

He returned to UCL in 1903 and stayed for 10 years doing the work for which he is best known. If you remember nothing else about him, you should know that Wilsmore discovered ketene (H2C=C=O) by the thermal decomposition of acetic anhydride by an electrically heated platinum wire (Wilsmore, J. Chem. Soc. 1907, 91, 1938; Deakin and Wilsmore, J. Chem. Soc. 1910, 97, 1968). Wilsmore subsequently isolated diketene, but identified it incorrectly as acetyl ketene (Chick and Wilsmore, J. Chem. Soc., 1908, 946; ibid. 1910, 1978).

Our archives contain lyrics (tune unknown) which were sung at the Lab Dinner in 1905, said to have been written by A.W. Stewart, late Prof. of Chemistry, Queens University, Belfast.

'It has quite a good constitution
-C twice and H twice and an O-:
And even in weakest dilution
Of its presence you very soon know.
For the smell of that simple creation
Will grasp at your nose & remain
And hours after you'll sneeze in iration
At ketene again.'

Wilsmore returned to the antipodean sunshine when he was offered the foundation Professorship of Chemistry of the fledgling University of Western Australia, of which he eventually became Vice-Chancellor.

Peter Allen has written to us with the words to a later song about Wilsmore which his father, who studied under Wilsmore before going to the UK on a Rhodes Scholarship, taught him. The tune is "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp along the Highway" and Allen points that, if you failed your exams, you had, in the vernacular, "spun."

In the English Room I sat
Where the scenery is flat
And asbestos walls a gloomy future tell.
Fill, oh fill me up with wine
For my spirits, not a line
Could I write. I wish the gaudy profs to ...well...

Spun, Spun, Spun, the winds are howling.
Spun again, you fool, I told you so.
There were twenty-four got through
And that's everyone but you.
Oh, you should have died of measles long ago.

'Twas the same with Wilsmore's biz
How those chemicals did fizz
As the formulae we vainly strove to know.
As the time to stop drew near
My result was very clear ---

After his death, his wife set up a research fund in his name to support a chemistry researcher visiting the University of Melbourne for one year. He is also commemorated by the Wilsmore Prize in Chemistry at UWA.

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This page last modified 20 September, 2010

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