Angus Smith: the “father of acid rain”

I spent yesterday running a workshop on the diatoms associated with soft waters and acidic habitats at the Scottish Environment Protection Agency’s brand new office at Holytown, just outside Glasgow.  By a happy coincidence, Roger Flower, my fellow tutor and I were teaching this workshop in a building named after Angus Smith, a pioneering environmental scientist who was the first person to use the term “acid rain” back in 1852.

Robert Angus Smith was born in Glasgow in 1817, trained to be a clergyman (as did his near-contemporary Charles Darwin) but left before being ordained.   He went to Germany a few years later and studied chemistry at the University of Giessen under the famous chemist Justus von Lieberg.


A bust of Angus Smith in the foyer of Angus Smith House, Holytown.

Smith was active during the middle of the nineteenth century, when the consequences of the Industrial Revolution and urbanisation on public health and the environment was just beginning to be understood (see posts of 22 June and 23 June).   Smith’s own interests as an analytical chemist led him to investigate the chemistry of rain water.  Although Smith himself acknowledged that other scientists had already noted that rainwater was often acidic, he was the first person to link this acidity to industrial activity.   Working from Manchester, he made the link between the low pH of rain water here and sulphates derived from the combustion of coal.   He then went on to link this “acid rain” to the dissolution of some types of building stone, bricks, mortar and metal in the areas, as well as effects on vegetation.

The subject of “acid rain” then received only scant attention for about 100 years, before becoming a major political issue during the 1980s due, in no small part, to the work of Roger Flower and Rick Batttarbee.   One further consequence is that I remember reading one of their early papers on the diatoms of a loch in Galloway as an undergraduate.   I was inspired by the way that they had used ecology to gain insights into weighty environmental issues to pursue a PhD in freshwater ecology myself.  Thirty years later, I found myself standing next to Roger as we both contemplated a bust of Angus Smith.


Roger Flower introducing SEPA biologists to the subtleties of Scotland’s softwater diatom flora at Angus Smith House, Holytown, December 2013.


Flower, R.J. & Battarbee, R.W. (1983).  Diatom evidence for recent acidification of two Scottish lochs.  Nature (London) 20: 130-133.

Gorham, E. (1982).  Robert Angus Smith , F.R.S., and ‘Chemical Climatology’.  Notes and Records of the Royal Society 36: 267-272.