Early Life and Education
Sir James Colquhoun Irvine was born on May 9th 1877 in Glasgow. He entered the Royal Technical College (Strathclyde University) at the age of 16, before matriculating and attending the University of St Andrews when he turned 18. While he was there, he worked under Professor Thomas Purdie; himself a notable Scottish chemist who is widely credited with founding the School of Chemistry at the University of St Andrews.
Accomplishments in Chemistry
Irvine made some significant scientific contributions during his time at St Andrews. During WWI, he was instrumental in the development of a pure medicinal sugar called Dulcitol. This invention was used to treat British troops suffering from fever and meningitis, saving thousands of lives. Under request of the Chemical Warfare Department, Irvine assisted in analysing a German chemical weapon, commonly known as Mustard Gas. This was dangerous work given the toxicity and nature of the chemical, but nonetheless he played a notable part on the synthesis and subsequent analysis of the chemical weapon. He also contributed to the creation of Novocaine, an anaesthetic used for frontline surgeries. During peacetime, Irvine made significant contributions to the field of Chemistry through his research on carbohydrates. His researched enhanced the scientific community’s understanding of the ‘ring structures’ of carbohydrates, which in turn informed developments in biology such as the discovery of the structure of DNA. He received numerous honours for his achievements, including being elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1918, knighted in 1925, and receiving numerous national and international medals and awards such as the Longstaff Medal in 1933.
Contributions to St Andrews
Sir James Irvine was also notably the Principal of St Andrews for over three decades – from 1920 to 1952. During his tenure as president, he oversaw an extensive modernisation of the university, earning him the moniker “St Andrews’ Second Founder”. In his early days as principal, the University of St Andrews was suffering from a noticeable lack of suitable buildings and equipment designed for the pursuit of scientific inquiry. Not to mention the relatively small number of students and precarious financial position. It is down to Irvine’s dedication to St Andrews and his hard work that the university is where it is today. He was instrumental behind revitalising the University community, re-establishing it as a residential University. He also oversaw the expansion of student halls of residence, which in turn attracted increasing numbers of students to study in St Andrews. In addition to this, many university buildings saw improvements, there was increased accessibility to scientific equipment for research, and both St Salvator’s Chapel and St Leonard’s Chapel were renovated and restored respectively as a result of Irvine’s efforts.