Kirsop Labs

Skills development for science students everywhere

Who really was Joseph Black?

Arguably, the general public of Edinburgh were more informed about contemporary chemistry in the 1700’s than they are today. Here, we take a look back at the career of our building’s namesake to encourage the same enthusiasm and commitment that Joseph Black pioneered over 200 years ago.

Joseph Black, Professor of Chemistry

To commemorate the 300th Centenary of the School of Chemistry, this year’s Walker Memorial Lecture was given by Dr Robert Anderson, a distinguished chemist and museum curator. Dr Anderson began his story with the death of Joseph Black in 1799. In his own words, “funerals tell us more about people than baptisms”, and this is certainly true of Black. His funeral procession included all 500 or so of the professors and students of the University, who began their procession at Old College to his house on Nicolson St, and finally to the graveyard at Greyfriar’s. (Incidentally, the ground floor of 46 Nicolson St is now a bingo hall and a ‘cashino’.)  He reached the ripe old age of 71 with a large estate and many devoted ex-students from his time as Professor of Chemistry at Edinburgh.

A Brilliant and Insightful Researcher

Having begun in the arts, Black migrated to medicine and achieved his medical degree in 1752. His thesis was concerned with the chemistry of ‘magnesia alba’ (or magnesium carbonate), and especially the release of what he called ‘fixed air’ on reaction with acid. He developed his own analytical balance to measure the weight difference of the reactants once the reaction was complete. Up until this point, all gas was assumed to be one substance at varying levels of purity. This work laid the foundation for the study of gases in chemistry; he showed that gases have their own chemical identity.  The only problem is that this research had a lot to do with chemistry and very little to do with medicine. To fix this, he added a chapter to his dissertation concerning the ability of magnesia alba to aid digestion.

A Sociable and Engaging Man

Black’s contributions to chemistry are diverse and far-reaching. This is the side of Black that I’d been aware of during my undergraduate years; a brilliant mind and important figure in the history of science. But throughout his talk, Dr Anderson described a man that was much more than the research for which he is remembered. A conscientious man, he was careful with his money and slow to accept new scientific theories without sound proof. His economic and analytical skills saw him become ‘the best judge, perhaps in Europe’ of the value of industrial processes. He was called a ‘clubbable man’, meaning that he frequented the intellectual and social clubs of the time with his contemporaries. And perhaps most surprisingly, he was uncommonly reticent to publish his work. His research into latent heat was widely discussed and plagiarised during his lifetime. Despite this he is considered to be the discoverer of latent and specific heat even though he never  published a word on the subject.

An Enthusiastic and Theatrical Teacher

Above all, Dr Anderson emphasised Black’s  passion for teaching. He was a charismatic and deeply committed teacher, giving 128 lectures over the course of every academic year for the duration of his 30 year career at Edinburgh. These lectures were open to students of the university, but also to professionals in other fields and interested members of the public. His style was inclusive and enthusiastic, and he spent a great deal of time and money developing new equipment to allow his experiments to be seen from the back of the room. He used his knowledge to consult with anyone who wrote to him, giving advice on a wide array of subjects. By the end of his career, he was renowned for his expertise and approachability.

A Role Model for Chemists Today

This passionate man who so keenly involved himself in educating both his students and the wider public is a fantastic role model for our institution. Black saw his lectures as an opportunity to engage everyone with his field, and his often theatrical teaching methods were highly popular.

Teaching skills are as important today as they were all those years ago and Black is a role model for the modern academic chemist, combining ground-breaking skills in research with the ability to communicate effectively and enthusiastically with all levels from first year undergraduates to research seminars.

Posted under: Scientific Interest

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About Lindsey Robinson

Lindsey is one of KLabs student editors. She is a 2nd year PhD candidate studying nanoelectrochemistry with Professor Andy Mount, where she designs, manufactures and analyses new nanoelectrode systems.

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