James William McBain spearheaded major advances in colloid chemistry, introducing thermodynamic descriptions to the previously small and qualitative field. His more than 450 research papers and two textbooks spanned broad interests in physical chemistry, with major contributions in colloidal electrolytes, the adsorption of gases on solid surfaces, and the properties of detergent solutions. He is described as a generous and warm-hearted teacher and researcher, who contributed the final years of his career to scientific and economic development in India, through the National Chemical Laboratory there.
Professor McBain was born in Chatham, New Brunswick, in 1882. He completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Toronto (AB 1903) before pursuing doctoral studies under colloid chemist H. Quinke at the University of Heidelberg (PhD 1906). He taught physical chemistry as lecturer at the University of Bristol, England from 1906 until 1919, when he became the first professor designated Leverhulme Chair of chemistry. He was recruited to Stanford University as full professor – the first Chemistry Department hire at tenured rank – in in 1927. At Stanford, he continued investigations of unusual properties of soaps and soap solutions, and posited the existence of micelles as agents to dissolve otherwise insoluble particles in water. On a request from Prime Minister Nehru, he became emeritus in 1947 to work as director of the National Chemical Laboratory in Poona, India.