Joseph Black

Black, Joseph, M.D., an eminent chemist and physician, was born, of Belfast parents, at Bordeaux in 1728. He received his preliminary education at Belfast, whence he proceeded to the University of Glasgow, to acquire a knowledge of medicine and the collateral sciences. In 1754 he took the degree of M.D., and delivered as his inaugural thesis an inquiry into the nature and operation of various lithontriptics. This address passed through several editions, and procured for him much reputation. "The researches relating to fixed air and carbonic acid gas may fairly be esteemed as having led to the discoveries of Cavendish, Priestley, Lavoisier, and others of the pneumatic school, the importance of which is now justly admitted."[42]

Upon the removal of his distinguished preceptor, Dr. Cullen, to Edinburgh, in 1756, Dr. Black was, at Dr. Cullen's earnest desire, appointed his successor as Professor of Anatomy and Chemistry. As early as 1756 he commenced the investigation into the nature and properties of heat, which occupied him many years. "Black discovered and developed the general law that connects and explains the phenomena of the production of heat and cold, which occur in the combination, liquefaction, and evaporation of bodies, several of which it must, however, be admitted, had been previously attended to by Dr. Cullen. The doctrine of latent heat, to the discovery of which Dr. Black's claims are indisputable, was applied to the explanation of numerous natural phenomena, and he was assisted in his experiments by two of his pupils, afterwards well known in the scientific world-James Watt and Dr. Irvine. Mr. Watt always professed to have been indebted to the instruction and information received from Dr. Black for the improvements that he made in the steam engine."[42]

In 1766 Dr. Cullen was advanced to the chair of Medicine in Edinburgh, and Dr. Black succeeded to his professorship of chemistry in the same University. His style as a lecturer was unsurpassed — combining elegant simplicity with clearness and precision. Numbers were through his lectures attracted to the study of chemistry. His scientific attainments, gentle and pleasing manners, and cultivated tastes, gathered round him a circle of intimates such as James Watt, James Hutton, David Hume, Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, Dr. Cullen, and Sir G. Clerk. He was a member of many learned societies in Great Britain and upon the Continent. Dr. Black died suddenly, 26th November 1799, aged 70. He was discovered sitting before his usual frugal meal of bread, prunes, and milk — his death had been so calm that the mug of milk set down upon his knee remained unspilled. A bachelor, he had by will divided his large fortune equally amongst his relatives. His Lectures on Chemistry were edited by his friend Professor Robinson, in 1803. Within a short period they went through three editions in German. The President of the British Association at Glasgow, in 1876, in his address says: "It is now conceded that Black laid the foundation of modern chemistry."

The British Quarterly Review writes: "Considered as a philosopher, Black ranks amongst the highest of those who have wrought out great theories. Induction was the only method by which he sought to discover truth."


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

28. Belfast Monthly Magazine. 1808-'14.

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