Wartime Chemical Research

The onset of hostilities between Germany and Britain in August 1914 had a significant impact on the ability of the British aniline dye industry to meet the needs of both civilian and military clothing production, amongst other consumers. By February 1915 there was not much more than three months’ supply of dyes left in the United Kingdom. Furthermore, coal tar, from which aniline dyes derived, was also used in the manufacture of the explosive tri-nitrotoluene (TNT) and so supplies of coal tar were being diverted away from dye manufacture to the production of TNT.

Professor Arthur Green

Professor Arthur George Green was Chair of Tinctorial (Colour) Chemistry at the University of Leeds from 1903 to 1916.

A new method of making picric acid

A new method of making picric acid

Professor Green was one of the chemists invited to join a committee convened by the British Government under the stewardship of Lord Moulton. The committee was charged with solving the problems of chemical supplies needed for dyes and explosives.

The committee set up the state-funded British Dyes Limited to alleviate the aniline dye shortage, purchasing the dye manufacturer Read Holliday & Sons of Huddersfield and injecting capital of £1.7 million. Green’s attention was then turned to the demand for enhanced explosives production. Green developed a new and improved way of making picric acid: long used as a key component of explosives, this was also useful as an antiseptic and for burns treatment. The details of the new process he devised for synthesizing picric acid are described in the specification for his UK patent number 16,607, filed on 24 November 1915. This new process proved critical to Britain’s enhanced production of picric acid by 1917.

Although Green’s connection with the University of Leeds ended in 1916, his war contributions did not cease when he moved to Manchester to establish the Dyestuffs Research Laboratory at the Manchester College of Technology.

Professor Arthur G. Perkin

University student in research laboratory of explosive factory

University student in research laboratory of explosive factory

Green’s successor as Professor of Colour Chemistry was Arthur George Perkin. Born on 13 December 1861, Perkin studied at the Royal College of Chemistry before spending a year at Anderson’s College in Glasgow. After several years as a chemist in industry, in 1892 he became lecturer and research chemist in the Dyeing Department of the Yorkshire College (known as the University of Leeds from 1904). He became brilliantly successful at investigating the structures and other properties of dyes and in 1903 was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

During the First World War he carried out investigations into explosives and related work, leading the University of Leeds-based team of research chemists working for British Dyes Limited. He was appointed Professor of Colour Chemistry at Leeds in 1915, in succession to Arthur Green and was Dean of the Faculty of Technology from 1922 to 1924. He remained at Leeds until his death in 1937.

Professor Arthur Smithells

Arthur Smithells was born at Bury, Lancashire, on 24 May 1860. He spent the long span from 1885 to 1923 as Professor of Chemistry in Leeds, where he began research work on flame chemistry – the structure of flames and their characteristic spectra. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1901.

Smithells’ chief work during the First World War was instructing troops in gas warfare: he served as a visiting lecturer to the camps of the Northern Command and later served in London as Chief Chemical Advisor for Anti-Gas Training of the Home Forces, achieving the honorary rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. He was also noted for his lack of jingoism during the war: while serving as Vice-President of the Royal Society in 1916-1917 he strongly opposed attempts to remove German-born Arthur Schuster (Professor of Natural Philosophy at Manchester) as the Royal Society’s Secretary.

Manufacture of chloramine T

Manufacture of chloramine T

Smithells did much work after the war in developing public awareness of the dangers of gas warfare. To read more about Professor Smithells’ wartime work, click here.

With thanks to Professor Graeme Gooday, Debbie Slater and Lee MacDonald