Kane, Sir Robert John (1809–90), chemist and scientist, was born 24 September 1809 at 48 Henry St., Dublin, younger son of John Kean, chemist, and Eleanor Kean (née Troy), sister of Archbishop John Thomas Troy (qv). John Kean had studied chemistry in Paris after fleeing to France during the 1798 rebellion, and changed his name to Kane on his return a few years later. Robert soon developed an interest and aptitude for chemistry. As a teenager he attended lectures at the Royal Dublin Society, and in 1828 published his first scholarly paper in the London Quarterly Journal of Science, Literature and Art. In an important scientific contribution the following year, he described the natural arsenide of manganese, which was named Kaneite in his honour. Entering TCD in 1829, he graduated BA (1834), simultaneously studying and working at the Meath Hospital. In 1831 he published his first book, Elements of practical pharmacy, and was appointed to the chair of chemistry at the Apothecaries’ Hall, where he was known as the ‘boy professor’. This ended his medical career, although by common practice he was allowed to write MD after his name, and he completed his medical qualifications in 1843. Elected MRIA in November 1831, he was to be associated with the Academy for the remainder of his life, and received its gold medal in 1843 for his work on compounds of ammonia.
Appointed lecturer (and later professor) of natural philosophy by the Royal Dublin Society (1834–47), he made in this period his greatest contribution to chemical research. Groundbreaking work on combining ammonia with metallic salts established his reputation in Europe (1838), and in 1840 he was appointed editor for life of the Philosophical Magazine. His last major contribution to pure chemistry was Elements of chemistry (1841, 1842; 2nd ed. 1849). He then turned to the investigation of industry in Ireland; his Industrial resources of Ireland (1844; 2nd ed. 1845), which was based on lectures he had delivered in Dublin in 1843, argued for the potential of the country's natural resources, manufactures and agriculture, and advocated in particular the creation of small farms. An important economic and social analysis, it saw him appointed in 1845 to the Museum of Economic Geology (later the Museum of Irish Industry (1847), from which the Royal College of Science was founded in 1867).
When the potato blight reached Ireland in 1845, Kane worked on experiments to neutralise its effects and treat the damaged potatoes. In recognition of his work, in 1846 he was appointed one of the eight relief commissioners to supervise the distribution of food. The experience of the famine left a bitter and enduring memory, and he recognised that it destroyed the spirit of progress that had been thought evident at the beginning of the decade.
In December 1845 he was named first president of Queen's College, Cork, in the royal charter of incorporation. Archbishop Daniel Murray (qv) of Dublin thought him an excellent appointment and the lord lieutenant, Lord Heytesbury (qv), whose choice he was, thought the appointment of a distinguished lay catholic would help dispose catholic opinion to the queen's colleges. As president Kane was anxious to make QCC acceptable to the catholic authorities. Provision was made for compulsory religious instruction for students from the various denominations not living at home. In an address in October 1850, a month after the catholic bishops at the synod of Thurles had condemned the queen's colleges, Kane made a strong plea that the colleges should be seen as representing the highest potential of catholic emancipation and were offering a chance to get the best education available. He robustly defended a college with both catholic and protestant students: ‘Yes, I support mixed education: not as a state official, but as an Irishman’ (Murphy, The college, 42). As president Kane did not enjoy good relations with staff and his continuing role as dean of the College of Science in Dublin meant that he was frequently absent from college meetings. But he established QCC's intellectual independence and it is clear that the college benefited from the academic prestige he brought to it over the long years of his presidency. He was elected FRS in 1849, having been knighted by the lord lieutenant three years earlier.
With the many official and academic positions that he held, his research output declined as he was forced to concentrate on administrative duties. In 1860 the government even asked him to resign some of his offices, but he refused. Eventually he retired from both QCC and the Royal College of Science in 1873, although in 1875 he became a commissioner of national education, served as vice-chancellor of the Queen's University in Ireland in the last two years of its existence, and was president of the RIA (1877–82). He died 16 February 1890 at his home at 2 Wellington Road, Dublin.
He married (23 August 1838) Katherine Sophia Baily (see Katherine Sophia Kane (qv)), daughter of Henry Baily, a distiller in Co. Limerick. She was the author of The Irish flora (published anonymously, 1833). They had ten children, three of whom died in infancy. Their eldest son was Robert Romney Kane (1842–92), a county court judge, and their second son, was Admiral Sir Henry Coey Kane (1843–1917); another son, Brother Francis Baily Kane, was provincial of the Irish province of the De La Salle order.