Alexander Williamson

A Victorian chemist and the making of modern Japan

Takaaki Inuzuka and translated by Haruko Laurie

ISBN: 9781787359314

Publication: June 09, 2021

What is this?

Alexander Williamson was professor of chemistry at UCL (1849–87) and a leading scientist of his time. He taught and cared for visiting Japanese students, thereby assisting them with their goal of modernising Japan. This short, accessible biography explores his contribution to nineteenth-century science as well as his lasting impact on Japanese society.

In 1863 five students from the Chōshū clan, with a desperate desire to learn from the West, made their way to England. They were put in the care of Williamson and his wife. Their mission was to learn about cutting-edge Western technology, science, economics and politics. When they returned home they rapidly became leading figures in Japanese life at a particularly turbulent time, one of them serving as the country’s first prime minister. Subsequently many other Japanese students followed in their footsteps and studied at UCL.

The remarkable story of the part Williamson and UCL played in the modernisation of Japan is little known today. This biography will promote a deeper understanding of Williamson’s scientific innovations and his legacy for Anglo-Japanese relations. An Afterword briefly outlines the extraordinary careers of the pioneering students after they left Britain.

Takaaki Inuzuka (1944–2020) studied economics at Gukushuin University and was awarded a PhD in literature by Hosei University. He was Emeritus Professor at Kagoshima Immaculate Heart University, where he was also a former Vice-President, and served as Honorary President of the Satsuma Students Museum. He specialised in the history of Japan's international relations during the Meiji period, on which he published numerous books, including biographical accounts of Japanese students who studied abroad. Translated by: Haruko Laurie is an Emeritus Fellow of Selwyn College, Cambridge and taught Japanese in the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Cambridge for 40 years. Her publications include An Introduction to Modern Japanese.

List of illustrations
John White

1. A traveller of intelligence
2. Birkbeck Laboratory at UCL
3. The Chōshū Five
4. The Satsuma Nineteen
5. The fate of the early students
6. Bridge to Japan’s modernisation
7. Towards ‘unity out of difference’

Appendix: The names of the Chōshu Five and Satsuma Nineteen

Afterword: Serendipity: The ever-widening circle
John White

Further reading

Format: Open Access PDF

colour illustrations

Copyright: © 2021

ISBN: 9781787359314

Publication: June 09, 2021

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