July 2018

LGC and Queen’s University Belfast researchers chart life of WWI chemist

Renowned chemists Michael Walker and Professor Duncan Thorburn Burns published new research on the life of World War I chemist Gordon Wickham Monier-Williams, famous for his food testing methods.
Awarded a Military Cross for his work combatting chemical warfare in the first World War, Monier-Williams went on to make comprehensive improvements in public health via analytical chemistry.
Dr Michael Walker, Referee Analyst, LGC, said: “Having applied his method in the lab many times it was fascinating to find out more about Monier-Williams’ life and work, especially in the trenches. This was an unexpected resonance with our colleagues’ work identifying previously unknown remains of soldiers from World War One.”
Monier-Williams holds an established place in the history of food safety in the UK owing to his eponymous method for the determination in food of sulphites, useful additives which can cause severe, even life-threatening asthmatic reactions in sensitive subjects. Thus, their detection and control is vital. The method Monier-Williams published in 1927 remains the reference method for their determination in food.
The breadth of Monier-Williams’ investigations in food chemistry and toxicology were wide, including:

  • metallic contaminants in food - aluminium, Al, Arsenic, As, Lead, Pb, and antimony, Sb, including from glazes and enamels used in cooking utensils;
  • additives such as preservatives and colours;
  • foreign matter, e.g. glass, in food;
  • chemical reactions (‘blowing’) in canned food; 
  • the detection of added water in milk;
  • natural and artificial bleaching of flour.

Duncan Thorburn Burns, Professor, Queen’s University Belfast, said: “Gordon Wickham Monier-Williams is well-known to analytical chemists for his eponymous method and it was a pleasure to unveil his contributions to the improvement in both quality and purity of foodstuffs.”
Aside from food, Monier-Williams studied the eradication of bed-bugs, and presciently, the use of alcohol as a fuel.

Read the full extent of his influential work in the open access Journal of the Association of Public Analysts.

A scan of Monier-Williams’ 1927 report on the determination of sulphite is also available here.