Have you ever wondered where you would be without Thomas Graham? If you are a chemist or membrane scientist, you probably should. Scientists of many disciplines are indebted to Thomas Graham for his groundbreaking studies on gas flow through microporous membranes. His work, which included creating Graham’s Laws of Diffusion to describe the relative permeation rate of two gases, was instrumental in the creation of colloidal chemistry and the advancement of membrane science.
In terms of real world applications, Graham’s efforts are a precursor to inventions ranging from the artificial kidney to the atomic bomb. His feats are even more impressive when you consider that in order to perform his experiments he had to first generate the necessary gases himself, and also that his selection of membrane materials was limited to whatever objects he could find, such as rubber balloons, animal bladders, and thin metal sheets.
Thomas Graham was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1805 and enrolled in the University of Glasgow at the tender age of 14! He went on to become Professor of Chemistry at Anderson’s College (now part of Strathclyde University) and then at University College London. In 1854, Graham was named Master of the Mint, a position once held by Sir Isaac Newton. Even though this was considered to be more of an honorary title at the time, Graham invested himself so heavily in its duties that he actually suspended his research for several years. The position was permanently retired following his death in 1869.
Thomas Graham’s influence has grown considerably since his passing. In addition to Graham’s Laws for diffusion and effusion of gases, he introduced the terms gel, sol, colloids, crystalloids, and dialyzer into the scientific lexicon. Other important contributions include his determining the formulas of the PxOy polyatomic ions, and in the 1850’s he hypothesized that a membrane machine could be created that would separate the blood toxins that built up in kidney failure, paving the way for modern kidney dialysis. His tenacity was rewarded with several honors in his lifetime, including the Copley Medal of the Royal Society, the Royal Medal of the Royal Society (twice), and the Prix Jecker of the Paris Academy of Sciences.
“Thomas Graham,” D. Lane and J. Solon, Woodrow Wilson Leadership Program in Chemistry, The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, CN 5281, Princeton, NJ 08543; http://www.woodrow.org/teachers/ci/1992/Graham.html.
“Membrane Pioneers: Thomas Graham,” S. Alexander Stern and Richard W. Baker. Membrane Quarterly. Volume 25, Number 1, January 2010, pgs. 17-19.