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Robert Angus Smith
Robert Angus Smith

Robert Angus Smith was the first chief inspector of the Alkali Inspectorate, formed to control industrial emissions; he became known as the ‘father of acid rain’.

Robert Angus Smith was born in Pollokshaws, near Glasgow on 15 February 1817, the twelfth child in his family. It was well known that his family were religious and saw a number of members start along a career path towards the church. Following high school, Angus went to Glasgow University to study and prepare for ministry in the Church of Scotland. However, after a year, he decided to leave this course and spent the majority of the next ten years as a personal tutor in the Scottish Highlands and then in London. It was because of this that he had the opportunity to accompany the family of Revd E Bridgemand, whose children he tutored, to Germany in 1839.

He chose to stay on in Giessen to study chemistry under Justus von Liebig and earned his PhD in 1841. His interest and inspiration to study science had arisen from attending lectures of Thomas Graham during the late 1820s.The fact that one of his brothers, Joseph, had studied chemistry in Aberdeen also played a huge part.

Early career

The start of his career involved a move to Manchester, where he was invited to become an assistant to Lyon Playfair. Together they had an interest in the science of sanitation, which became the main theme of Angus’s research. Following his career move he remained in Manchester as an analytical chemist in his own right but failed to gain a university post. His lecturing style, unlike other academics, was to emphasise the complexity and uncertainty within chemistry, that other’s sidestepped in their teaching.

Angus also had an opportunity to progress as an expert witness in court when, in the mid-1850’s, he represented a friend. Peter Spence, was sued for releasing chemicals into the atmosphere that were considered a nuisance to the public. His experience deeply unsettled him, as he witnessed some chemists accepting bribery to state a professional opinion distorted from the truth, and he refused all further witness work.

Environmentalist at heart

It was when he later moved to work in London that he first coined the phrase ‘acid rain’; the result of his making a connection between industrial pollution and the acidity of urban rainfall in the 1850’s. Two decades later, in 1872, he published his analysis of rainwater acidity thought the UK. Air and Rain: the Beginning of a Chemical Climatology revealed the most acidic rain was found in Glasgow. In the text, he stated there were three different types of acid rain: that in the countryside, in the suburbs and in the city.

From 1873 until his death in 1884, Angus also headed up one of the earliest environmental protection bodies in the world: the Alkali Inspectorate, known then as the Alkali Act (now Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Pollution). He was considered the natural candidate from both his work experience and well-known integrity, evident from his response to scientific testimonies in court.

Angus’s passion for his work and surroundings can be seen from a letter he wrote in 1844 to the Manchester Guardian expressing his deep concern for the environment.

“Coming in from the country last week on a beautiful morning, when the air was unusually clear and fresh, I was surprised to find Manchester was enjoying the atmosphere of a dark December day. This is not seldom the case…we see that the atmosphere of our streets in winter is frequently of deepest black.”

As well as his role with the Alkali Inspectorate, Angus was also elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1857 and of the Chemical Society from 1845. He served on the latter's council in 1870-72, as well as being elected as vice-president in 1878-80.

Words by Geri Kitley
Images © Royal Society of Chemistry, Library
Published November 2014

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