Ryan, Hugh (1873–1931), chemist, was born 15 September 1873 in Dolla near Nenagh, Co. Tipperary, second son of John Ryan, small farmer and shopowner at Dolla, and Sarah Ryan (née Quinn) of Ballymackey. His scientific interest may have been influenced by previous members of his family: his grand uncle John Kelly was vice-president of the Irish Geological Society and author of a work on geology. Hugh went to Killinaive national school before attending Blackrock College, Dublin (1888–92), where he was a successful student and keen sportsman, captaining the senior rugby team. Hugh and his brother John were said to be the first to go on to university education from Blackrock College. He entered QCG on a scholarship (1892) and began studying medicine. On seeing his scientific bent, Professor Alfred Senier (qv), one of his influential chemistry teachers, urged him to give up his medical studies and concentrate on science. In 1895 he graduated with first place in experimental science from the Royal University and was later awarded MA in chemistry and physics and a gold medal (1897). For the following two years (1897–9) he continued postgraduate research in Berlin, assisting Emil Fischer in his classical work on the sugars, and became a fellow of the German Chemical Society (1887).
In 1899 he returned to Dublin as assistant professor of chemistry in the Catholic University School of Medicine and in University College. After sitting his D.Sc. in chemistry by examination (the first in Ireland to do so) later that year, he was appointed professor. In 1900 he was appointed fellow of the Royal University. For the first few years of teaching he had no research laboratory but had to use the student benches in the teaching laboratories at Cecilia St. Experimental equipment had to be cleared away regularly before student practical classes. When the NUI was founded (1908) he was appointed first professor of chemistry in UCD, a position he held till his death. He established a successful department and an active research group on organic chemistry in the newly available laboratories in Earlsfort Terrace. With a postgraduate population of sixty-six, his research school became the biggest in the college by 1928. He was known familiarly as ‘the doctor’ by his senior students. Some of these were his early co-authors, who later became renowned in their own right: Thomas J. Nolan (qv), who succeeded Ryan as professor of chemistry in 1932, Joseph Algar (qv), who was appointed professor of organic chemistry at UCD, and Thomas P. Dillon (qv), who became professor of chemistry at UCG.
As well as continuing his work on sugar derivatives, mainly glucosides, he began research on other natural products: waxes and natural dyes, especially flavanoids. During the first world war he carried out research on nitrogen compounds for Nobel's explosives company in the UK. He wrote extensively and during his life he published more than seventy papers, most of them in the proceedings of the RIA. Despite his research in organic chemistry, he had an excellent knowledge of physical and inorganic chemistry. Outside academia he had a great interest in the development of the industrial resources of Ireland and became an expert on peat. His international reputation grew and he was regarded as the top Irish chemist of the time. In 1924 the Irish government offered him the new position of state chemist with the newly established state laboratory. As an anti-treaty man he initially refused, but was prevailed on to put the country's needs first. In the end he accepted the additional duties, but the routine procedures and red tape frayed his spirits.
Politically he was a republican and during the war of independence and the civil war he was a strong inspiration of the republican ideal among students at UCD. However, he did not speak out publicly and few in authority suspected the professor's leanings. During a random British army search of one of his classes, he proceeded to give a marathon one-and-a-half-hour lecture, allowing those sought after, including some from the IRA's Dublin Brigade, to slip away. Despite his active membership of the RIA (1903), where he served on the council for many years, he chaired the first meeting (21 July 1921) of a group interested in the creation of a new ‘National Institute or Academy’. This new institution was to have a purely nationalist ethos, as an alternative to what was perceived as the more unionist ethos of the Royal Irish Academy at that time. The foundation meeting of the new Irish National Academy was held in UCD on 19 May 1922, with a membership of 126, but after a year it quietly disappeared and the unionist element in the RIA diminished.
His remarkable memory and broad knowledge were often the subject of comment. After his postgraduate days in Germany he was described as ‘combining in the happiest manner Celtic imagination and Teutonic industry’ (McCartney, UCD, 66). A gentle and unassuming man, beloved of his students, he could also be firm and resolute when occasion called. He was generous and very religious and an exceptionally active member of the Society of St Vincent de Paul. Retiring by nature, he liked spending time in the garden or reading; other interests were golf, motoring, and bridge. One of his good friends was the priest and republican Michael O'Flanagan (qv). Ryan died prematurely on 27 March 1931. At the time of his death he had just begun to research the lichen acids.
He married (1904) Kathleen, third daughter of Col. F. G. Adye-Curran, RAMC, a dental student at Cecilia St. They lived at Orwell Road, Rathgar, before moving to St Brendan's, Cross Avenue, Blackrock, Co. Dublin. They had four sons and eight daughters. In Ryan's honour the Hugh Ryan commemorative medal is awarded to an undergraduate UCD chemistry student every year, and a memorial plaque hangs in the chemistry building. A Hugh Ryan memorial lecture was delivered by Prof. Thomas Dillon (UCG) to a meeting of Cumann Ceimicidhe na hEireann (1946), and a transcript is found in the Blackrock College annual (1946).