Thomas Graham was born in Glasgow, Scotland, on December 21, 1805. His father was a prosperous manufacturer who wanted his son to become a minister of the Church of Scotland. Graham entered the University of Glasgow in 1819 at the age of 14. While there, he was strongly influenced by the chemistry lectures of Thomas Thomson to enter the field. After receiving his M.A. at Glasgow in 1826, he worked for two years with Thomas Charles Hope at the University of Edinburgh. He then returned to Glasgow, where he privately taught mathematics and chemistry for one year. In 1829, he became an assistant at a school to teach workingmen science and then in 1830 he became a professor of chemistry at Anderson's College (later the Royal College of Science and Technology) in Glasgow.
In 1834 Graham became a fellow of the Royal Society and three years later moved to London to become professor of chemistry at the recently founded University College (now a part the University of London). In 1841 he helped to found the Chemical Society of London, which was the first national chemistry society setting an example for the formation of similar societies in France (1857), Germany (1867), and the United States (1876). Graham became the first president of the Chemical Society of London. In 1844 with the death of Dalton, Graham was generally acnowledged to be the leading chemist in England. He remained at the University College for 20 years until 1854, when he was appointed master of the mint (a post that Newton had occupied and that ceased to exist at Graham's death.) He remained there until his death on September 16, 1869.
Graham never really overcame a certain nervousness and hesitancy. However, this did not seem to affect his ability as a teacher since he made up for these deficiencies by being conscientious, organized, logical, and accurate. When he became master of the mint, it was generally expected that he would treat the position as a sinecure, but Graham took the position so seriously that he stopped all his research for several years while he organized the operation of the mint. For his work Graham received several awards including the Royal Medal of the Royal Society twice (1837 and 1863), the Copley Medal of the Royal Society (1862), and the Prix Jecker of the Paris Academy of Sciences (1862). In addition his textbook, Elements of Chemistry, was widely used in both England and in Europe.
Graham's work mainly can be described now as being physical chemistry. However, his interests were extremely varied and included the following:
His three major areas of contribution are in the diffusion of gases, colloid chemistry (Graham is often considered the father of colloid chemistry), and the determination of the formulas of the PxOy polyatomic ions. In addition, Graham's work with the absorption of hydrogen gas by palladium metal has taken on more significance in light of the cold fusion controversy.
Graham's interest in gases developed at a very early age and continued throughout his life. As a university student of fourteen, he once asked his professor Thomas Thomson, " Don't you think, Doctor, that when liquids absorb gases the gases themselves become liquids?" It was suggested by colleagues of Graham that this remark so impressed the usually irascible Thomson that he was very solicitous of Graham for the rest of his life.
Graham's first experiment with gases dealt with the diffusion of different gases into the atmosphere. Gases were arranged separately in a cylindrical container with a tube opening to the atmosphere. The tube was bent in a right angle, with the tip pointing up or down depending on whether the gas was more or less dense than air. After several hours to allow for diffusion, the cylinder was placed in a pneumatic trough and water was allowed to enter to replace the gas that had diffused out. In this way Graham could measure how much of a particular gas diffused out of the tube in a given amount of time by how much water replaced the gas. In 1833 Graham published an article, " On the Law of the Diffusion of Gases," in which he explicitly stated what we now call Graham's Law:
The diffusion or spontaneous intermixture of two gases in contact is effected by an interchange in position of indefinitely minute volumes of the gases, which volumes are not necessarily of equal magnitude, being, in the case of each gas, inversely proportional to the square root of the density of that gas.Graham also worked on the diffusion of gases into gases other than air. In addition, he replaced the tube opening with a porous plate made of graphite or unglazed porcelain.
Prior to 1833 when Graham published his work on phosphate compounds, it was thought that there were two forms of phosphoric acid which produced a variety of salts. The common form, what we now know is Na2HPO4, (for clarity, the modern formula of the salt will be given in parentheses) gave a yellow precipitate with silver nitrate and left the solution acidic. The second form resulted from heating the phosphate salt (Na2HPO4) above 350 degrees C. This form gave a white precipitate with silver nitrate and a neutral solution. Unfortunately, at the time the dualistic formalism for writing salts tended to confuse the understanding of these and other phosphorus compounds. For example, potassium sulfate was written as KO*SO3 and the potassium acid sulfate compound (which we know as KHSO4) was written as KO*2SO3 and the hydrogen was believed to be similar to the water of hydration. Similarly the formula for potassium carbonate was written KO*2CO2 and potassium bichromate was thought to be KO*2CrO3. The phosphate compounds were more complicated because pyrophosphate (Na4P2O7) and the neutral phosphate (Na2HPO4) both appeared to be 2NaO*P2O5. However, Graham found that when crystals of the neutral phosphate were heated, all but one of the water molecules in the crystal were readily lost (these were the water of hydration) and the last unit of water was not lost until the temperature was much higher. The salt that was formed from the pyrophosphate gave the white precipitate with silver nitrate. The difference between the two phosphate salts was the one water molecule. Graham then concluded that the water might play the role of a base in a salt. Continuing in this way Graham determined that there were really three phosphate salts of sodium (Na3PO4, Na2HPO4, NaH2PO4) as well as sodium pyrophosphate (Na4P2O7) and sodium metaphosphate (NaPO3).
Graham's work on colloids was largely overlooked when it was first published mainly because he introduced a vocabulary that was different from his colleagues. Colloids are solutions in which the dispersed particles are between 10-7 and 10-4 cm in diameter and cannot be separated by filtration or gravity alone. (Graham was the first to use terms gel, sol, and colloid). He also used a "dialyzer" which he developed to separate colloids (which dialyzed slowly) from crystalloids (which dialyzed rapidly). He prepared colloids of silicic acid, ferric oxide, and other hydrous metal oxides. He stated that colloids and crystalloids "appear like different worlds of matter". However, he also he recognized that "in nature there are no abrupt transitions, and the distinctions of class are never absolute."
Graham was also the first to observe that palladium metal is able to absorb large amounts of hydrogen gas, especially at lower temperatures. In addition he observed that when the palladium with hydrogen dissolved in it is exposed to the atmosphere, then the metal is likely to become hot and suddenly discharge the gas. This mechanism was offered as a possible explanation for the energy released during the "cold fusion" controversy several years ago.
R.A.Gortner, Colloids in Chemistry, Journal of Chemical Education, 1934, 29, 279-283.
A. Ruckstuhl, Thomas Graham's Study of the Diffusion of Gases, 1951, 34, 594-596.
T. Graham, On the Molecular Mobility of Gases, Journal of the Chemical Society of London, 1864, 17, 334-339.
T. Graham, Chemical Report on the Mode of Detecting Vegetable Substances Mixed with Coffee for the Purpose of Adulteration, Journal of the Chemical Society of London, 1857, 9, 33-51.
T. Graham, On the Properties of Silicic Acid and Other Analogous Colloidal Substances, Journal of the Chemical Society of London, 1864, 17, 318-323.
G. Kauffman in C.C.Gillispie, Dictionary of Scientific Biography, Charles Scribner's Sons (1972), 492-494.
T.E.Thorpe, Essays in Historical Chemistry, MacMillan, 1894, 206-293.
A. Ihde, The Development of Modern Chemistry, 2nd Edition, Dover Publications, 1964, 199-200.