Science in the Scottish Enlightenment
Science in the Scottish Enlightenment

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Science in the Scottish Enlightenment

6 Joseph Black

6.1 A lifelong academic

Hutton can in many ways stand as a representative of the intellectuals of the Scottish Enlightenment. But they were not entirely homogeneous in their intellectual and religious outlooks. The chemist Joseph Black (1728–99) was a close friend of James Hutton (and Adam Smith), but the two men were quite different. Whereas Hutton was robust and disorganised, Black was pallid and precise. Hutton operated outside the universities, but Black was a lifelong academic. If Hutton gained his interest in geology from his industrial and farming activities, Black came to chemistry from his medical studies. Whereas Hutton was keen to speculate about the origins of the earth, even calling his book Theory of the Earth, Black insisted that it was only the facts that counted, and deplored all speculation and theorising. Similarly, Hutton (like Black's colleague Cullen) made no secret of his deism, but Black's religious views remain an enigma even today and they played no part in his scientific work.

Figure 6
(Photo: National Library of Scotland.) ©
National Library of Scotland
Figure 6: James Hutton (1726–97) and Joseph Black (1729–99) (From J. Kay, A Descriptive Catalogue of Original Portraits, Edinburgh, 1836)

It would therefore be rash to assume that a case-study of a single figure, even one as illustrious as Hutton, can provide us with a complete picture of Scottish science in the eighteenth century. What light does Black's scientific activities shed on the Scottish Enlightenment and what were his major contributions to the development of European science?

Joseph Black was born in April 1728, not in Scotland but in France, the son of an Ulsterman, who was a wine merchant in Bordeaux, and his Scottish wife. After four years' education in Belfast, Black went to Glasgow University at the age of sixteen. Pressed by his father to choose a profession after he completed his arts course in 1748, Black decided to take up medicine. Black was not particularly interested in becoming a physician, but the medical course enabled him to continue the study of natural philosophy under the new lecturer in chemistry, William Cullen (1710–90). This was a crucial step in Black's career, for Cullen was one of the first teachers of chemistry in British medical school to base his course on the general principles of chemistry, rather than materia medica.


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