William Norman Rae: Asparagus at Onagh

wnr-headstoneAt Curtlestown, there is a headstone that caught my eye:

In Loving Memory of | WILLIAM JOHN NORMAN RAE | M.A. (Cantab) S.c.D (Dub) | Professor of Chemistry and Physics | Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland | Onagh, Enniskerry | died 18th Nov. 1964

Being a chemist myself, a Professor of Chemistry in our midst intrigued me. An extensive obituary appeared for Rae in Orbital, the magazine of the Institute of Chemistry of Ireland in 1965, as well as the Irish Times in November 1964. Orbital’s obituary stated that Rae was born to Scottish parents in Banbury, in July 1886, and was educated at Reading and Cambridge, studying physics, chemistry and botany.

Following a brief spell as a teacher, he moved to Sri Lanka, as an assistant government analyst. After war broke out, he volunteered in 1915 to work in an ammunition factory, and was appointed temporary government chemist to the Royal Gunpowder Factory at Walthan Abbey, in Essex. He is listed as a 2nd Lieutenant, and then Major in the Ceylon Light Infantry and was awarded the medals shown for his work.

After the war, Rae returned to Sri Lanka, first to his old post, but then moved into academia, when he was appointed Professor of Chemistry at University College, Colombo. When Sri Lanka (Ceylon) gained independence in 1934, Rae came to Ireland, taking up a position at the Royal College of Surgeons as Professor of Chemistry and Physics. The Irish Times reported the appointment on Feb 17, 1934:

At a meeting of the President, Vice-President and Council of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, held of February 9 in Dublin, Mr William Norman Rae , MA, FIC, was elected Professor of Chemistry and Physics in the School of Surgery.

William Norman Rae, from Irish Times, 1960

William Norman Rae, from Irish Times, 1960

Rae obviously made a good impression, as four years later, he was appointed College Registrar, a position he held until his retirement in 1962. His work in chemistry centred around methods of chemical analysis, and along with Prof Joseph Reilly at Cork and Prof Wheeler in UCD – both of whom had worked in the ammunition factory – he wrote “Physico-Chemical Methods” in 1926, which became a standard work in the discipline, running to many editions. His academic work earned him a DSc from Trinity College Dublin in 1939. His obituary cites a former student:

He was a delightful and most refreshing lecturer. He had a wonderful command of language and this combined with a puckish humour kept us all in a state of anticipation, and seldom were we disappointed.

A prize at RCSI currently bears his name. Perhaps on taking up his position at RCSI, Rae moved to Onagh House, outside Enniskerry, where he farmed, including breeding Jersey cows and growing asparagus, evidently putting his Cambridge botany to good use. Quite how he ended up in Curtlestown Graveyard remains, for me, a mystery.


Submissions are invited for articles to the 2013 Journal of Enniskerry and Powerscourt Local History. The theme this year is ā€œGathering our Genealogiesā€œ. See here fore more details.

2 thoughts on “William Norman Rae: Asparagus at Onagh

  1. I am reviewing all the academic prizes in RCSI, and was delighted to come upon this summary of Prof Norman Rae. We continue to award the Norman Rae prize annually to promising medical students. He did indeed seem to be a character of note!

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