The Department of Chemistry started in 1929 with the official opening of Raffles College for the teaching of Arts and Science.
Dr G E Brooke delivered the first lecture on chemistry in the College and the teaching of chemistry took place initially in the Government Analyst’s offices at Sepoy Lines. Dr George McOwan, who arrived in 1929, was the first Professor of Chemistry and he was joined in 1930 by Mr C T J Owen as lecturer. Dr P Purdie became Professor of Chemistry in 1940 after Professor McOwan resigned.
After the World War II, Raffles College was reopened in 1946. Dr M Jamieson and Dr A Jackson of the Government Department of Chemistry (the forerunner of the present Department of Scientific Services) acted as Professor and lecturer respectively.
At the formation of Raffles College, the Department of Chemistry was housed in the right wing of the Manasseh Meyer Science Building at the Bukit Timah campus. With the rapid increase in enrolment in the early 1950s the Department expanded into the upper left wing of the Manasseh Building and half of the FMS Building by 1953. It also occupied the lower left wing of the Manasseh Building in 1959 wherein was housed the newly established microanalytical laboratory.
Department of Chemistry had been one of the major departments since Nanyang University was formed in 1956. During the earlier years, practically all the teaching staff were recruited from either Hong Kong or Taiwan. The return of several alumni who completed their higher degrees from USA to fill vacancies in staff positions included Dr Aw Beng Teck, Dr Chew Chwee Har, Dr Gan Leong Ming, Dr Goh Suat Hong, Dr Koh Lip Lin, Dr Khoo Swe Hoo, Dr Lee Hee Khiam, Dr Lee Swee Yong, Dr Mok Chup Yew, Dr Ng Ang Ser, Dr Wong Ming Keong. Since 1968 Dr Koh Lip Lin, Dr Lee Swee Yong and Dr Gan Leong Ming rotated the headship. Professor Kiang Ai Kim took over the headship in 1975 until the National University of Singapore formed.
By 1977, the Department at Nantah occupied almost the whole ground floor of the main buildings of the College of Science, had seven laboratories for undergraduate teaching, four and one glass-blowing workshop. These laboratories are equipped with wide- ranging facilities including specialized equipments such as NMR, IR and UV/Vis spectrophotometers and X-ray diffraction apparatus.
The University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur was established in 1959, and in 1962 the branch in Singapore was renamed the University of Singapore. Vacancies in staff positions were increasingly filled by local returning scholars who had recently graduated with PhD degrees from British universities. These included Dr Huang Hsing Hua, Dr Tan Eng Liang (the first local Rhodes Scholar) and Dr Sim Keng Yeow.
Professor F H C Kelly, the first Professor of Applied Chemistry, was appointed in 1968 to take charge of the Applied Chemistry section of the Department.
In April 1975 the Applied Chemistry section formally became the Department of Chemical Engineering within the Science Faculty. It was not until 1980 that this new Department was transferred to the Faculty of Engineering.
During this period, the Department also saw a steady increase in staff numbers for the traditional chemistry section. From mid-1960 to the beginning of the 1970s there was almost one new appointment every year. These new staff included Dr Yeo Ning Hong who joined in 1971. Professotr Kiang Ai Kim retired in 1971 and was conferred Emeritus Professorship. He was succeeded by Associate Professor Ang Kok Peng who had just returned to the Department after his stint as Singapore’s ambassador to Japan since 1967. Shortly after assuming the headship he was appointed as Minister of State for Communications and later also as Minister State of Health. During his absence from 1972 to 1975, Assoc Professor Lee Hiok Huang, who rejoined the Department from the University of Malaya, became Head of Department.
The total number of chemistry students was also increasing rapidly. A new building called the Science Tower was thus allocated to the department. This ten-storey building, reputed to be the tallest university structure in Asia at that time, was officially opened by Mr Lee Kuan Yew, the then Prime Minister of Singapore on Friday, 1 July 1966. With a total floor area of about 6500 sq. m, it had rooms and laboratories for 20 academic staff, all the teaching laboratories, student research laboratories, microanalytical laboratory, glass blower’s room, chemical stores and workshop.
This brief period was a prelude to the merger of the University of Singapore and the Nanyang University into a single university.
Upon the complete merger of the Nanyang University and the University of Singapore to form the National University of Singapore (in 1980), Faculty of Science moved to Kent Ridge in June 1981. This began a period of rapid growth both for the University and the Department of Chemistry.
New staff members, both academic and non-academic, now numbering about a hundred, were recruited to meet the increasing student population. Professor Ang Kok Peng was the Head of Department until he retired in 1988.
He passes away in 1997 and the Ang Kok Peng Memorial Fund was established to honour his memory. This fund is used to support educational programmes and activities for the development of chemistry in the country. Assoc Professor Sim Keng Yeow, Professor Lee Soo Ying, Assoc Professor Lai Yee Hing, Andy Hor have taken up the headship since then. In parallel with the rapid expansion in students, staff and teaching and research facilities, the Department is increasingly focusing its attention towards avenues that would promote excellence both in teaching and research. Between 1980-94, an Industrial Chemistry course (Chemistry B) was introduced to final year students to meet the increasing demand from industry for our graduates with an applied chemistry background. The introduction of the Direct Honours programme was yet another innovation to cater for exceptional students who their would complete Honours degree in three years.
In 1994, all departments in the Faculty switched to the modular system to permit students to proceed at a pace compatible with their needs and abilities. All courses and laboratories in the Department were thus recognized into categories of essential, elective of enrichment modules.