This post is based on an archive blog written in 2011 by guest blogger, Jo Rodgers, a former student and staff member, who reviewed our previous Sir James Irvine Exhibition! When thinking about the University’s long history (607 years long to be precise!) we often take time to think about those individuals who have had a resounding impact upon its future. One such individual is Sir James Colquhoun Irvine, who was Principal of St Andrews for over three decades – from 1920 to 1952.
Sir Irvine came from a fairly humble background, he was born in Glasgow on 9 May 1877, and was the son of John Irvine, a manufacturer of light iron castings, and Mary Paton Colquhoun, of highland descent. Irvine began his journey as a scientist when he entered the Royal Technical College (now Strathclyde University) at the age of sixteen, and in 1895 he attended at the University of St Andrews and worked under the notable twentieth-century Scottish chemist, and future friend and colleague, Professor Thomas Purdie. It was at one of Scotland’s oldest, and fairly unheard-of, Universities that Irvine acquired an enduring love for the coastal town and for the University which he would serve as a lecturer, professor, and principal for much of his life. Throughout Irvine’s education, he was influenced by several exceptional scientists. For example, even before he graduated at St Andrews, he was awarded an ‘1851 Exhibition scholarship’ in 1899 and attended the University of Leipzig, while working towards his PhD, he worked alongside notable German pioneers of science including Wilhelm Pfeffer and Wilhelm Ostwald.
However, it is during his career as a Chemist and lecturer at the University of St Andrews, that he made a name for himself. Some of the most striking discoveries Irvine made, alongside Purdie, was through his research into the complexities of sugar molecules. During the First World War, numerous University chemical laboratories across the UK were utilised by the government to produce chemicals for warfare. While working with a team of nearly one hundred staff at the St Andrews Chemical Laboratory, Irvine developed a pure medicinal sugar called Inulin.
To develop this drug, Irvine relied on natural sugar sources such as dahlia tubers and seaweed. In fact, Irvine made a national war-time request in several newspapers for dahlias, with many being transported by train to St Andrews station and then, with the assistance of local Boy Scouts, wheelbarrowed to the laboratories. This manufactured Inulin was then used to treat British troops suffering from fever and meningitis in the Balkans, saving thousands of lives. At the request of the Chemical Warfare Department, Irvine also assisted in analysing and developing a large-scale treatment for Mustard Gas, a terrifying chemical weapon used in trench warfare. Lastly, during wartime he oversaw the creation of Novocaine, a valuable anaesthetic for frontline surgeries.
His contributions to science did not end there however, during peacetime, Irvine continued to make significant contributions within the field of chemistry through his research on carbohydrates. Irvine enhanced our understanding of the ‘ring structures’ of carbohydrates, which in turn, helped to inform developments in biology such as the discovery of the structure of DNA. In recognition of his scientific achievements and his research in carbohydrate chemistry, Sir Irvine acquired a number of honours including: being elected a FRS (Fellow of the Royal Society) in 1918, knighted in 1925, and being awarded a number of national and international medals, such as the ‘Longstaff medal’ of the Chemistry Society of London in 1933.
During his long service as Principal, Sir Irvine oversaw extensive modernisation of the fairly outdated and financially limited University, earning him the appellation “St Andrews’ Second Founder”. First and foremost, Irvine focused on revitalising the University’s community and reestablishing it as a residential University. To the benefit of St Andrews, Irvine oversaw the expansion of student halls of residence, revived old University customs and traditions, improved many buildings and the accessibility of scientific equipment for research, and secured donations for the renovation of St Salvator’s Chapel and the restoration of St Leonard’s Chapel. These changes to the University attracted increasing numbers of students to St Andrews, in addition, when combined with his emphasis on the importance of both Carbohydrate and wider academic research, the University drew international acclaim. After Irvine’s death in 1952, he certainly left the institution with a legacy of excellence in research which endures to this day.
Some of the objects in the Museum’s collection provide a selection of fascinating insights into Irvine’s professional and personal life in St Andrews. The Wardlaw Museum holds over nine hundred sugar samples which attest to his extensive research on sugar molecules and his contributions to science. Meanwhile, photographs of him with his family, his wife Lady Mabel Irvine and their three children, illustrate the role which they played at the University. One especially evocative photograph shows Mabel Irvine and their daughter Felicity being cheered by then-rector of the University, J.M. Barrie in 1922. It seems clear that even during our sixth century as a University, we owe many thanks to this interesting and great man.