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June 2018

Was it Roscoe?

A couple of years ago, I was contacted by English chemists who are preparing a biography of the English chemist Henry Enfield Roscoe. In gathering information about their subject, they had come across information that Roscoe’s death was noted in Australian journals and newspapers ... some 27 years before he actually died. The biographers sought my help to access a local account of Roscoe’s premature end.

The notice appeared here first in the Brisbane Courier on Thursday 19 April, in a collection of news items received by cable from London. It was picked up a few days later by Queensland’s Warwick Argus and other regional newspapers but not reported in Melbourne and Sydney papers. However, in May there was an extensive obituary in the Australasian Journal of Pharmacy that gave as its source a cablegram, dated London, 18 April.

Roscoe was born in 1833 and studied at University College London and then with Bunsen at the University of Heidelberg, where he contributed to the development of spectrum analysis. Returning to England in 1857, he was appointed as Professor of Chemistry at Owen’s College, which in 1886 became the Victoria University of Manchester. Roscoe researched mainly in the field of inorganic chemistry and his best-known work concerned the element vanadium. In 1865, his attention was drawn to the unusual properties of a minor component of the ores recovered from a copper mine at Alderley Edge, a few kilometres south of Manchester, and from it he isolated the oxide of vanadium. Berzelius had examined vanadium oxide some 30 years earlier and assigned to the metal an atomic weight that Roscoe found to be in error. Writing in his autobiography in 1906, Roscoe described it as the best piece of scientific work he ever did because ‘vanadium, which had hitherto been wandering among the elements like a stray goddess (Vanadis being the Scandinavian name for Venus) was brought home to her relations and placed in an assured position among the elements’.

In addition to the fame and awards that his chemistry brought him, Roscoe took a prominent part in public life, being elected to parliament as MP for Manchester South (1885–95), following which he became a Privy Councillor. He was knighted in 1884.

Roscoe died in 1915 at the age of 82, so ... how did his death come to be reported in 1888? The answer is to be found, I think, in the obituary notice that appeared in the Brisbane Courier ‘The death is announced of Sir Henry Roscoe, M.P., F.R.S., Professor of Chemistry at Owen’s College; and Mr Roscoe Conkling, formerly a prominent member of the United States Senate’. The first bit was fake news, but the second bit was true. Conkling (1829–88) was a lawyer who practised in upstate New York before his election to the House of Representatives, where he served 1859–63 and again 1865–7. Moving to the Senate, he was in office 1867–81, a Republican noted for his abstemious habits (no alcohol or tobacco) and his support for the rights of African Americans.

It was, and still is, common for newspapers to hold files of draft obituaries (called ‘advancers’) that, come the death of a prominent person, could be quickly updated and published. Maintaining these files was often the job of staff who worked on them when they were not assigned to news stories. Sometime the ‘pre-dead’ subject is consulted about the content of what is described to him or her as a personal file. Mistakes in releasing the ‘advancers’ can occur, but I would expect a senior staff member to handle the final version and ensure that there was good reason to publish the obituary. Staff can get up to mischief, too, but I can’t think of a reason that anyone would want to prematurely decease Sir Henry.

I am not sure if it’s the one that Roscoe made famous, but I have been in one of the old mines under Alderley Edge. I was walking on the Edge one day when a trapdoor lifted up and out came a man in caving gear. I asked what was going on and, learning that it was an old mine that went back to Roman times, I was able organise a place on the next outing. My hosts were members of the Derbyshire Caving Club who look after the mine workings as well as some of the limestone caves further to the east. There’s still a bit of copper in the Alderley Edge mine, as you can see from the photograph I took.



Ian D. Rae FRACI CChem ( is a veteran columnist, having begun his Letters in 1984. When he is not compiling columns, he writes on the history of chemistry and provides advice on chemical hazards and pollution.

Wikicommons/Welcome Collection/CC BY 4.0

Henry Enfield Roscoe (1833–1915), photograph by Walery c. 1880.

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