Robert Boyle

From A Compendium of Irish Biography, 1878

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Boyle, Robert, one of the greatest natural philosophers of his age, and one of the founders of the Royal Society, was the seventh son and fourteenth child of the Earl of Cork, and was born at Lismore, 25th January 1627. He learned to speak Latin and French while a child, and was only eight years old when he was sent to Eton. There he studied about three years, and was next placed as private pupil with the rector of Stalbridge in Dorsetshire, where his father had just taken up his residence. In 1638, after a visit to London, he travelled in France, accompanied by a French tutor, and studied above a year at Geneva. In the autumn of 1641, he visited Switzerland and Italy, and spent the winter at Florence. There he studied the works of Galileo, who died near Florence during his residence. On reaching home in 1644, he learned the death of his father, who had left him the manor of Stalbridge, and estates in Ireland. These latter he occasionally visited during his after life. Next year he became a member of a society of scientific men, the germ of the Royal Society, who in consequence of the agitation of the times used to hold their meetings with as much privacy as possible — first in London, afterwards in Oxford.

In 1646 he settled at Stalbridge; and thenceforward devoted himself to scientific research and authorship. In 1654 he removed to Oxford, where he resided for fourteen years, enjoying the society of the first minds of the day, and making improvements in the air-pump, and various discoveries on the properties of air and the propagation of sound — all recorded in his voluminous writings. He was an ardent theological student, and numbered amongst his friends some of the most eminent orientalists. He was favourably received at court after the Restoration, and was urged to enter the Church, which he declined — alleging that it was not his vocation, and that his theological writings would have greater weight coming from a layman than from a cleric. He bore the entire expense of a Malay translation of the Gospels and Acts, and of an Irish version of the Bible, and also contributed largely to the cost of a Turkish New Testament, and Welsh Bible: he liberally supported projects for the spread of the Gospel in India and America, and at the same time annually gave away large sums for charitable purposes.

He made his first appearance as an author in 1660, by his publication at Oxford of his New Experiments, and a devotional work, Seraphic Love. In 1680 he declined the post of President of the Royal Society, from scruples of conscience regarding the religious tests and oaths required. In 1689, finding his health declining, he refused visits, and commenced to rewrite a quantity of his MSS. that had been stolen and mutilated. With some expectation that science might yet succeed in transmuting the base metals into gold, he procured the repeal of the Act against "the multiplying of gold and silver."

He died in London, 30th December 1691, aged about 65, seven days after Lady Ranelagh, to whom he was much attached; he was buried at St. Martin's-in-the-Fields. Dr. Burnet, to whose History of the Reformation he had contributed, preached his funeral sermon. Boyle never married. It is interesting to note that he was born in the year Bacon died; and Newton in that in which Galileo died — Boyle being fifteen years older than Newton. In person he is described as tall, slender, and emaciated; excessively abstemious, he was often oppressed with low spirits. He was brilliant in conversation, benevolent, and tolerant. Though the friend of three monarchs, he ever refused a peerage. He has often been ranked with Bacon, and with his friend and intimate, Newton. He was a voluminous though heavy writer on theological questions, as we may gather from Swift's imitation of his style in the Pious Meditation on a Broomstick. By his will he endowed the "Boyle Lectures," for demonstrating the truth of the Christian religion against "Atheists, Theists, Pagans, Jews, and Mahommedans."

His works (about eighty in Ware's list), collected in 5 vols. folio, were published in London in 1744. We find the following remarks in Allibone. "'The works of Robert Boyle discover the solid learning and great acuteness of the philosopher, blended with all that veneration for God, and love of his revealed will, which so eminently characterized him as a Christian.' The value of his contributions to the cause of science, to the province of natural philosophy especially, cannot be too highly esteemed. More than two-thirds of his works are composed of the results of his investigations in pneumatics, chemistry, medicine, and kindred subjects. The philosophers of the day and of succeeding times acknowledge their obligations to Boyle in the strongest terms. What a splendid eulogy is that of the great Boerhaave! — 'Mr. Boyle, the ornament of his age and country, succeeded to the genius and enquiries of the great Chancellor Verulam. Which of all Mr. Boyle's writings shall I recommend? All of them! To him we owe the secrets of fire, air, water, animals, vegetables, fossils: so that from his works may be deduced the whole system of natural knowledge.'" [l6] Dugald Stewart writes: "To Boyle the world is indebted, besides some very acute remarks, and many fine illustrations of his own upon metaphysical questions of the highest moment, for the philosophical arguments in defence of religion, which have added so much lustre to the names of Derham and Bentley, and far above both, to that of Clarke."


16. Authors, Dictionary of British and American: S. Austin Allibone. 3 vols. Philadelphia, 1859-'71.

42. Biographical Dictionary: Rev. Hugh J. Rose. 12 vols. London, 1850.

47. Boyle, Memoirs of the Illustrious Family of, Dublin, 1755.

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