Thomas Purdie was born on January 27th 1843 in Biggar, South Lanarkshire. He spent seven years of his youth in South America, where he the abundance of flora and fauna captured his attention, arousing a spirit of inquiry that remained for the rest of his life. He returned to Scotland later in life, when his father purchased Castlecliffe in St Andrews around 1870. It was a conversation with Thomas Henry Huxley (fondly remembered as “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his advocacy and belief in Darwin’s theory of evolution) which convinced him to pursue a scientific education.
Work and Contributions in St Andrews
Purdie was elected to the vacant chair at St Andrews in 1884. At the time, the university could only offer cramped accommodation, imperfect equipment and the small matter that Chemistry had no official place in the curriculum. These circumstances did not faze Thomas Purdie whatsoever, as he worked to found the School of Chemistry in the university. His work at St Andrews was influential, and he is described as someone who devoted himself to developing the characters of his students much more than converting them into chemists. He was also instrumental in founding a “research school” in St Andrews, when he presented to the University a fully equipped research laboratory. This facility was self-supported by a generous endowment, allowing students to work free of charge, as well as assisting them with remaining at the university after graduation for the purposes of research. In fact, his work established the University of St Andrews as strong centre for research in organic chemistry. He is well remembered by those who had the opportunity to engage with him during his time at St Andrews. He was well known for his arresting personality as well as his eloquence in the lecture theatre. His door was never closed to students and was very happy to assist anybody in need. In fact, it was well known that he was approachable for conversation and intellectual discussion at his house at 14 South Street.
Discovery of the World’s Oldest Periodic Table
In 2014, staff at the Chemistry department at the University of St Andrews were instructed to clear out a storage area below one of the main lecture theatres in the Purdie building. This led to them finding a large and extremely fragile canvas, believed to be the earliest surviving example of a classroom periodic table in the world. Eric Scerri, an expert on the history of the periodic table based at UCLA dated the table to sometime in between 1879 and 1886, based on the elements that are represented. Researchers at the University of St Andrews were able to discover the origins of the chart. By investigating old financial records of the printing firm who printed this version of the periodic table, they have established that it was bought in 1888 by Thomas Purdie himself.
Thomas Purdie died on December 14th 1916 in St Andrews from heart failure. He was buried in the Cathedral Cemetery located in the town. Purdie’s dedication to St Andrews is best reflected in his intention that the prosperity of the Chemistry Department at St Andrews should not terminate with his own life. His wish was carried out loyally by his wife; who survived Purdie by only two years, when the remainder of her estate, amounting to about £25,000 was bequeathed to the University to be applied exclusively to the promotion of research of Chemistry in St Andrews.