History of Chemistry at Oxford

Department of Chemistry University of Oxford

The earliest periods of the development of a university chemistry school at Oxford are not easily unravelled from the simultaneous development of schools in physics and biochemistry. Chemistry was seen to be a truly separate discipline with the building of its own laboratory as an appendix to the Science Museum which opened in 1860. The laboratory stood and still stands as a remarkable small octagonal structure beside the museum, built in Victorian Gothic style deliberately designed on the Abbot's kitchen at Glastonbury. The building, one of the first purpose built chemical laboratories anywhere, is still called the Abbot's Kitchen. The laboratory was extended, still in Gothic style, in 1878 and this extension now houses the ICL undegraduate teaching laboratory.

Woodcut by O. Jewitt

The Oxford Museum. Architects: Benjamin Woodward and T. N. Deane. 1858. Woodcut by O. Jewitt from Eastlake, facing p. 283 - source

University Museum, Oxford: proposed sketch. Wood engraving by W.E. Hodgkin, 1855, after B. Sly, after Deane and Woodward.

University Museum, Oxford: proposed sketch. Wood engraving by W.E. Hodgkin, 1855, after B. Sly, after Deane and Woodward. - source

University Museum

Lithograph of the University Museum, circa 1880, with the Clarendon Laboratory in the background.

The southern boundary of the University after the construction of the Inorganic Chemistry extension in 1876 and prior to the construction of the Radcliffe Science Library in 1901. 

Exterior of Abbot's Kitchen at Glastonbury Abbey

Exterior of Abbot's Kitchen at Glastonbury Abbey, Glastonbury, Somerset, England - source

Baroness Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013) Oxford Chemistry Alumna

Margaret Thatcher studied Chemistry in this department and at Somerville College from 1943, where her Chemistry tutor at Somerville was Dorothy Hodgkin, to date the only British woman to have won a Nobel prize. Margaret Thatcher then worked as a research chemist at a plastics company before studying law and qualifying as a barrister in 1954 while developing her role as a politician.

Baroness Margaret Thatcher

Of significance to this Department were the reforms that she introduced as Prime-Minister in the 1980s, which provided tax incentives for investment in start-up companies and allowed UK universities to have ownership of IP with the proviso that they first created mechanisms to exploit it. This marked the beginnings of highly effective technology transfer and the founding of many companies. Since 1988 , for example, Oxford Chemistry has created fifteen companies, six of which have had initial public offerings (IPOs) contributing substantially to the University and the UK economy.

Margaret Thatcher 1925-2013 - University of Oxford