Edward Harrison: forgotten inventor of the gas mask


10 November 2006

The Royal Society of Chemistry would welcome information about the life and descendants of Edward Harrison, a chemical scientist who gave his life to protect British troops from the horrors of gas attack in the First World War, which will be in many people's minds in the days ahead.

At our offices there is a monument to members of our antecedent organisation killed in the Great War on which Lt-Col Harrison's name is listed. Clearly his science contemporaries regarded their colleague, who died at 47 one week before Armistice Day, as a war casualty. Indeed, RSC records from the time of the memorial's dedication make it plain that he worked himself to death, striving to design and get into mass production the first gas masks.

At the head of the war memorial are words surrounding an image of a gas attack alert: They say:" To save our armies from poison gas he have his last full measure of devotion."

Brief recent research has unearthed materials which tell us that Harrison, whose son died at the Somme in 1916, had been brought from France after the first terrible gas attacks on British troops. Although he was only a corporal when he enlisted in the army his skills in chemistry were well recognised, thankfully, and he became the fulcrum of a group of chemists which eventually produced the gas mask working tirelessly against the clock.

There should be a more awareness and appreciation of Lt-Col Harrison's contribution to the saving of lives on a massive scale. Now, with the approaching 90th anniversary of the end of the Somme battle as well as that of his death in 1918, as well as Armistice Day, it seems appropriate to discover more about this exemplary scientist and make it known, albeit many decades after he was buried at Brompton cemetery, with the posthumous thanks and farewells of fellow chemical scientists who knew the value of his contribution.

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