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Sydney Ross

Professor of chemistry and president of the James Clerk Maxwell Foundation.

Born: July 6, 1915; Died: December 4, 2013

Professor Sydney Ross, who has died aged 98, was a leading chemist and bibliophile, a former professor of colloid science at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, and a visiting professor at Strathclyde University. He was also the founder and, until his death, president of the James Clerk Maxwell Foundation.

He was born in Glasgow and was the only son of Jack and Lia Blint Ross. His father was senior partner in the family whisky distillery Ross, Campbell Ltd of Glasgow, and when he decided to extend the business to North America, the family emigrated to Montreal.

The young Sydney, who had been educated at the High School of Glasgow, attended McGill University and in 1936 graduated BSc with first class honours, concentrating on analytical chemistry. He then went on to the University of Illinois where he studied x-ray diffraction under George Clark and completed a dissertation on foams and brewing, graduating with a PhD in chemistry in 1940.

Following a faculty appointment at Monmouth College, Illinois, Professor Ross undertook post-doctoral study under James McBain at Stanford University, California, into the foaming of aircraft lubricating oil and other military subjects. He soon specialised as a colloidal chemist and in 1945 took up an appointment at the University of Alabama where, with his high standards, he is reputed to have been a source of terror to undergraduates.

In 1946, he moved to Clinton Laboratory, Oak Ridge (National Laboratory of the Atomic Energy Commission), where he made fundamental advances in the science of gas adsorption - how molecules of gas became adsorbed into a solid substance - demonstrating that the foaming and de-foaming of some liquid systems correlate with and can be predicted from their phase diagrams.

In notable pieces of work he showed that the contact angle against a solid in the two-phase region as the system approaches its critical point tends to 90 degrees, and he demonstrated that a gas adsorbed on a solid uniform crystalline surface has a two-dimensional critical temperature. His findings were at variance with the then currently accepted theory and remained unappreciated for several decades until the publication of his standard works.

In 1948, he became an associate professor of chemistry at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), becoming a full professor in 1952, an active emeritus in 1980 and an emeritus professor of physical chemistry in 1994. He was also a visiting professor at Strathclyde University.

During his tenure at RPI he wrote four books, edited three more, published more than 150 papers and mentored more than 30 doctoral students. He was lead co-author with Ian D Morrison of Colloidal Systems and Interfaces. Now updated, it is still a standard textbook for industrial chemists and chemical engineers.

Industries that have benefitted from Professor Ross's expertise include oil, paper, clay-mining, chemicals, cosmetics, distillation, detergents, pharmaceuticals, precious metals, soaps, and food science.

He was also a consultant to firms such as Colgate-Palmolive and Eastman Kodak. He also gave evidence as an expert witness in patent infringements cases.

From early in life, Professor Ross had developed a deep interest in the history of science, a notable publication being Nineteenth-Century Attitudes: Men of Science in 1991. This included erudite essays on the word 'scientist', Volta potential, electro-magnetic induction, electro-chemistry, and work of Faraday and Herschel.

Another publication in 2001, which led to an inspiring lecture to the Edinburgh Bibliographical Society, was his annotated Catalogue of the Herschel Library of astronomers William and John Herschel.

His main interest latterly was in promoting the life and work of James Clerk Maxwell and in 1977 he became founder chairman of the James Clerk Maxwell Foundation which in 1987 acquired and developed Maxwell's birthplace at 14 India Street, Edinburgh, as a mathematical study centre.

His successful venture which has gone from strength to strength was recognised in 2001 with the award by Heriot-Watt University of an ­honorary D.Sc. and in 2002 by his Corresponding Fellowship of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. In addition to significantly funding the Foundation, he also donated to it his valuable Maxwell library and collection of portraits of scientists.

He lived alone in Troy in a house that was filled from basement to attic with books, including early editions of Euclid, Bacon, Newton, Locke, Boyle and many 19th century scientists. The ambience of the house was enhanced by Cristiano Banti's painting of Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition (1857), overlooked by a bust of Sir Walter Scott.

Recognition of Ross's bibliographical interest is noted in a plaque tribute by the Friends of the Folsom Library at RPI, worded by his colleague, executor and friend Dr P Thomas Carroll, which reads: "Professor Sydney Ross. Scholar. Scientist. Teacher. Bibliophile extraordinaire and generous benefactor."

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