William DeRyee was born on May 15, 1825 in Würzburg, Bavaria, the son of Nicholas and Augusta Düry. He changed the spelling of his name when he emigrated to the United States. He was educated in the Gymnasium and Lateinschule in Würzburg. At the University of Munich, he studied with professor F. W. J. Schelling (philosophy), Karl F. P. von Martius (botany), John Lamont (meteorology), and Andreas Wagner (geology). He participated in the 1848 revolution against the king, and, after the Peoples Parliament named Archduke Johan of Austria administrator of the German Commonwealth, he went to the Netherlands, where he obtained passage to New York. DeRyee joined a group of German immigrants going to Tennessee. He met Ida Dorothea Mylius, from Themar, Saxony, and they were married on June 22, 1849, at Kingston, Tennessee; they had five children. That same year he built a cottonseed oil mill, and, with his brother-in-law, Henry Mylius, devised and constructed a cottonseed huller, which improved oil yield from cottonseed pressing. A Knoxville lawyer, W. Gibbs McAdoo, who represented the owners of several copper mines in Polk County, Tennessee, engaged DeRyee to explore the extent of the copper deposits. This job allowed DeRyee to travel in southeastern Tennessee and neighboring regions. In 1856 DeRyee came to New Braunfels, Texas and boarded with Wilhelm Thielepape, an inventor. While there, DeRyee experimented with photographic systems that did not use silver or mercury and developed a photographic system called homeography in 1857. The process used photography to make multiple copies of drawings and was used to print Texas Cotton Bonds during the Civil War. By 1858 DeRyee had moved to San Antonio; beginning a partnership with Carl G. von Iwonski in 1859. DeRyee earned a living by photography and lantern-slide exhibitions. He exhibited photographic transparencies, which he produced on glass, at St. Louis, Cincinnati, and other cities. He made an album of photographs of the Eighth Texas Legislature, and two famous photographs of Governor Sam Houston in Austin in 1860. With Ben McCulloch, he accompanied the Texas troops that secured the capitulation of San Antonio and recorded the surrender. At the beginning of the Civil War DeRyee was appointed state chemist and put in charge of the Texas Percussion Cap Manufactory in Austin by the Texas Military Board on January 11, 1862. He was the only chemist west of the Mississippi who knew how to make fulminate of mercury, and he personally prepared all that was produced from the Texas Military Board. Toward the end of the Civil War he was with the Confederate Nitre and Mining Bureau, and he developed several important sources of nitrates from the bat caves of Central Texas. As a part of developmental research, he worked out a procedure for making guncotton and demonstrated its value as an explosive in marine torpedoes, in admixture with nitroglycerin in forming a smokeless explosive, and in tracer bullets. Lacking well-trained chemists to carry out further development, Texas was unable to use DeRyee's inventions in the Civil War. He also helped incorporate the Texas Copper Manufacturing Company and was a prospector for that company in Archer County.
In December 1865 DeRyee went to New York and purchased a stock of hardware, chemicals, and other things in short supply and supervised their shipment to Corpus Christi. He opened a drugstore in Corpus Christi in January 1866. To raise money to finance this venture, he prepared a prospectus for some copper deposits in Archer, Baylor, and Seymour counties. Governor Throckmorton was president of the company, which benefited from DeRyee's analysis of the ore samples. DeRyee returned to Corpus Christi in 1867, during a yellow fever epidemic, which he ascribed to an unsanitary slaughterhouse. His son, Emil, died on August 12, 1867. DeRyee was called upon to treat the sick because all the physicians had died in the epidemic. He introduced the use of chlorine water with an alkaline solution of creosote as an antiseptic with some success. DeRyee was the Nueces County representative at the World Cotton Exposition in New Orleans in 1885. He was one of the original incorporators of the Corpus Christi National Bank. In 1888 he published a paper, "Economic Geology of Webb County" in the Geological and Scientific Bulletin. He bought a summer home at Topo Chico, near Monterrey, and another residence at Laredo. He maintained a lifelong interest in chemistry and mineralogy and gave private lessons to young men of the community. The DeRyee drugstore always had natural curiosities on display, and Dr. DeRyee was widely regarded as the most learned person in the city. His son, Charles DeRyee, first documented the presence of the boll weevil in Texas. DeRyee died on May 23, 1903, in Corpus Christi.