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Robert Kane (chemist) : biography

24 September 1809 - 16 February 1890

Sir Robert John Kane (24 September 1809 – 16 February 1890) was an Irish chemist.

Academic life

On the strength of his book Elements of Practical Pharmacy he was elected to the Royal Irish Academy in 1832. He studied acids, showed that hydrogen was electropositive, and proposed the existence of the ethyl radical. In 1836 he travelled to Gießen in Germany to study organic chemistry with Justus von Liebig.

He published a three-volume Elements of Chemistry in 1841–1844, and a detailed report on the Industrial Resources of Ireland. This included the first assessment of the water power potential of the River Shannon, which was not realised until the 1920s at Ardnacrusha. His work on Irish industry led to his being appointed director of the Museum of Irish Industry in Dublin in 1845 and first President of Queen's College, Cork (now University College Cork) in the same year. The science building on the campus of this college is named in honour of Kane. He was knighted in 1846.

He became a political adviser on scientific and industrial matters. He served on several commissions to enquire into the Great Irish Famine, all more or less ineffective. His political and administrative work meant that his contribution to chemistry ceased after about 1844.

In 1873 Kane took up the post of National Commissioner for Education. He was elected President of the Royal Irish Academy in 1877, holding the role until 1882. In 1880 he was appointed the first Chancellor of the newly-created Royal University of Ireland.


His second son, Henry Coey Kane, became an admiral in the Royal Navy.


His father, John Kean, was involved in the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and fled for a time to France where he studied chemistry. Back in Dublin Kean (now Kane) founded the Kane Company and manufactured sulphuric acid.

The young Kane studied chemistry at his father's factory and published his first paper, "Observations on the existence of chlorine in the native peroxide of manganese", in 1828. He studied medicine at Trinity College, Dublin and pharmacy in Paris. He was appointed Professor of Chemistry at the Apothecaries' Hall, Dublin in 1831. In the following year he participated in the founding of the Dublin Journal of Medical Science.

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Living octopus

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