Alexander Gemmell

In Affectionate memory of Alexander Gemmell D.Sc., F.I.C., Captain R.E., died at Murtle Aberdeenshire from the effects of gas poisoning 3rd January 1919 aged 29; sister Annie M Gemmell died 17th April 1926 aged 39; father George Harrison Gemmell died 1st February 1941 aged 80; mother Mary Ann Drust died 5th May 1949 aged 87; Ursula Alves Sutherland wife of above Alexander Gemmell died 16th October 1961.

CWGC:  Captain A. Gemmell, Special list, attached Anti-Gas School (London); d. 3 Jan. 1919; died at Murtle, Aberdeen, from the effects of gas poisoning, aged 29.  Y 238.  

Alexander Gemmell was born in Leith on 6 July 1889.  He was the only son of George Harrison Gemmell and Mary Ann Drust.  George Harrison Gemmell was born in Birkenhead in 1860 but his family moved to Hull where his father worked as a ship surveyor and he was educated at Hull Grammar School.  

He worked as a pupil teacher and then as an assistant schoolmaster for Hull School Board for eight years before winning a studentship in chemistry in 1882 to study at the Royal School of Mines in Kensington, London, for a year.  He then worked as an analytical chemist in the Liverpool City Analyst’s laboratory from 1883 to 1887 before moving to Edinburgh.  In Edinburgh he worked as a research chemist and a public analyst, lectured on chemistry in the University’s Medical School and was Professor of Chemistry in the Royal (Dick) Veterinary College.

Alexander Gemmell was educated at Gillespie’s School and George Watson’s College (1901-5) before studying science at Edinburgh University, graduating with a B.Sc. degree in 1908.  He worked as an assistant to the Professor of Chemistry in Edinburgh University for three years before joining his father in business in the firm of Gemmell and Thin, analytical chemists.  He was a member of Edinburgh University O.T.C. from November 1908 to November 1911.  He re-joined the O.T.C. when war broke out and was gazetted 2nd Lieutenant and then Lieutenant in 1915.  He graduated with a D.Sc. degree in 1915 and was admitted as a Fellow of the Institute of Chemistry (F.I.C.).  In 1916 he took command of the anti-gas school in the Scottish Command before moving to University College London in September 1917 to work at the Anti-Gas School there.  In April 1917 he was promoted to the rank of Captain in the Royal Engineers.  

The research chemists working in the Anti-Gas School risked their lives testing gases, gas antidotes and gas masks.  The work cost the lives of both Alexander Gemmell and his superior officer, Col. E. F. Harrison, who died in November 1918, but led to the issue of improved respirators which saved many lives.

Alexander Gemmell had a haemorrhage on 11 November 1918, the day the Armistice was signed, as a result of his research work. He died on 3 January 1919 at the Tor-na-Dee sanatorium in Murtle, Aberdeenshire, officially from Pulmonary Tuberculosis.

Alexander married Ursula Alves Sutherland in July 1914.  She was born in Nairn in 1881, the daughter of Alexander Sutherland, a master boot and shoemaker, and his wife Ursula Bain.  Alexander Sutherland died in 1894 and the family moved to Edinburgh where Ursula was working as a shorthand typist in the 1901 census and a typist in 1911.  She died in Edinburgh in 1961 aged 80.

University of Edinburgh Roll of Honour, Plate XXIX