Sir William Ramsay was born in 1852 in Glasgow. He was educated at the Glasgow Academy and the University of Glasgow although he did not take a degree. In 1872 he was awarded a PhD at Tübingen. In the same year, he was appointed assistant to Professor Gustav Bischof, Young Professor of Technical Chemistry in Glasgow. In 1874 he became tutorial assistant to Professor John Ferguson in the chemistry department of the University of Glasgow. In 1880, he was appointed Professor of Chemistry at University College, Bristol and in 1881 he was also appointed Principal of the College. He combined the two posts until 1887 when he was elected to the chair of general chemistry at University College, London.
Ramsay was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1888 and awarded its Davy medal in 1895; in 1897 he received the Longstaff medal from the Chemical Society, of which he was president in 1907–1909. He was vice-president of the Institute of Chemistry, and was president of the Society of Chemical Industry (1903–1904), the International Congress of Applied Chemistry (1909), and the British Association (1911). He was knighted in 1902.