Lives of the fellows

William Hyde Wollaston

b.6 August 1766 d.22 December 1828
MB Cantab(1788) MD(1793) FRCP(1795) FRS

William Hyde Wollaston, M.D.—This distinguished philosopher was descended from a family originally settled in Staffordshire. He was the third son of the Rev. Francis Wollaston, F.R.S., rector of Chiselhurst, and St. Vedast, Foster-lane, and precentor of St. David’s, by his wife Althea Hyde, and was born in Norfolk 6th August, 1766. He was one of fifteen children, all of whom reached the age of manhood. His constitution was naturally feeble, but by leading a life of the strictest sobriety and abstemiousness he kept himself in a state fit for the highest mental exertions. Dr. Wollaston received his academical education at Caius college, Cambridge, of which house he was a fellow; and proceeded M.B. 1788 ; M.D. 1793. He settled, in the first instance, at Bury St. Edmunds, but before long removed to London; was admitted a Candidate of the College of Physicians 14th April, 1794 ; and a Fellow 30th March, 1795. He was Censor in 1798, and became an Elect 13th February, 1824, in place of Dr. Hervey, deceased. In 1800 Dr. Wollaston became a candidate for the office of physician to St. George’s hospital; but, having been successfully opposed by Dr. Pemberton, he took a dislike to the profession, withdrew from its exercise, and thenceforward devoted himself almost exclusively to chemistry. His means, in consequence of the large family of his father, were necessarily small, and he looked to chemistry as his means of livelihood. In this department of science he attained to the highest eminence, and for minuteness of apparatus, neatness of manipulation, and accuracy of results, has never been surpassed. One of his great discoveries, the malleability of platinum, produced him, it is said, as much as thirty thousand pounds. He, with Sir Humphry Davy and Dr. Thomas Young, ranked as the most eminent representatives of English science of their age. He was secretary of the Royal Society from 1804 to 1816, and on the 29th June, 1820, was elected president of that society, an office which he retained for a few months only, resigning it on the 30th November following, when he was succeeded by Sir Humphry Davy. He received the Copley medal in 1802, for various papers in the Philosophical Transactions, and one of the Royal medals in 1828, for his communication of a method of rendering platina malleable. " Wollaston," writes Dr. Peacock, "is less known by any striking discoveries than by the happy invention of many processes in chemistry and the arts—some of which he made subservient during his lifetime to the interests of his fortune—as well as by various essays on very different branches of philosophy, which are generally remarkable for great precision of thought and statement, and by a command of the subject of which he is treating so complete, that he was very rarely mistaken in his conclusions. He was a good geometer, a good optician, and a thorough master of mechanical principles, as far as his very limited knowledge of analysis would enable him to apply them; but he was wanting in the courage of Young and the enthusiasm of Davy, and would rather have sacrificed the credit of the greatest discovery than expose himself to the danger or the imputation of failure. And there is every reason to conclude that much of the credit which Dalton and Berzelius have gained from the proposition and establishment of the great principles of the atomic theory would have been appropriated by Wollaston, if his courage and enterprise had been equal to his knowledge and to the clearness of his views of the proper import of definite chemical analyses and combinations. His name is consequently not permanently connected with any great real epochal advancement in the sciences, and it is on this account that posterity is not likely to maintain the same high estimate of his powers which was made by his contemporaries."(1)

Towards the latter part of 1828, Dr. Wollaston became dangerously ill of the disorder of which he died. His conduct under the heavy dispensation of his malady (disease of the brain) may well be called ‘ divine,’ if that of Socrates merited such an epithet. In the midst of disease and pain, and feeling that the duration of his life was precarious, he devoted his numbered hours to communicate by dictation, and thereby to preserve, all the discoveries and improvements which he had made, and the knowledge of which is calculated to be most beneficial to his fellow creatures. A nobler example of fortitude and virtue has never been witnessed in any age or country. A short time before his death he gave a fresh proof of his love of science, and of the interest he felt for its advancement. He wrote a letter to the secretary of the Royal Society, informing him that he had that day invested in the funds, in the name of the Royal Society, stock to the amount of 1,000l., the interest of which he wished to be employed in the encouragement of experiment in natural philosophy.

When he was nearly at his last agony, a circumstance occurred which shows that he still preserved his faculties and gives an interesting proof of the power of his mind over physical suffering. One of his friends having observed, loud enough for him to hear, that he was not at the time conscious of what was passing around him, he immediately made a sign for a pencil and paper, which were given him; he then wrote down some figures, and, after casting up the sum, returned them. The amount was right.

Dr. Wollaston died on the 22nd December, 1828, and was buried in the family vault at Chiselhurst, Kent. His portrait, by J. Jackson, R.A., is at the Royal Society. It was engraved by Thomson.

"Wollaston," says Dr. Henry, " was endowed with bodily senses of extraordinary acuteness and accuracy, and with great general vigour of understanding. Trained in the discipline of the exact sciences, he had acquired a powerful command over his attention, and had habituated himself to the most rigid correctness both of thought and of language. He was sufficiently provided with the resources of the mathematics to be enabled to pursue with success profound inquiries in mechanical and optical philosophy, the results of which enabled him to unfold the cause of phenomena not before understood, and to enrich the arts connected with those sciences by the invention of ingenious and valuable instruments. In chemistry he was distinguished by the extreme nicety and delicacy of his observations, by the quickness and precision with which he marked resemblances and discriminated differences; the sagacity with which he devised experiments and anticipated their results; and the skill with which he executed the analysis of fragments of new substances, often so minute as to be scarcely perceptible by ordinary eyes. He was remarkable, too, for the caution with which he advanced from facts to general conclusions; a caution which, if it sometimes prevented him from reaching at once to the most sublime truths, yet rendered every step of his ascent a secure station from which it was easy to rise to higher and more enlarged inductions." " He had," writes Dr. Thomson,(2) "without exception the sharpest eye that I have ever seen: he could write with a diamond upon glass in a character so small that nothing could be distinguished by the naked eye but a ragged line; yet, when the letters were viewed through a microscope they were beautifully regular and quite legible."(3)

William Munk

[(1) Life of Thomas Young, M.D., F.R.S., 8vo. Lond, 1855, p. 469.
(2) History of Chemistry, in 2 vols. 8vo. Lond. 1831. Vol. ii, p. 249.
(3) Wollastono ea fuit indoles, ut exquisitiores illas philosophiæ provincias, quas summo ardore excoluisset, neque steriles, neque ab hodierno usu semotas esse vellet, sed ex umbraculis eruditorum devocatas in solem et pulverem produceret. Novistis enim, Socii, quanta solertia, quantoque animi acumine, chemia duce et facem præferente, vesicae renumque calculos investigaverit, diversa eorum genera distinxerit, causas tam atrocis morbi explicaverit et exinde rationalem medendi normam desumpserit. Meministis etiam quam curiose et sagaciter, prima veri initia, quando pullulare inceperant, ab omni parte odoraretur atque vestigaret, et quam sedulo incrementis ejus invigilaret. Sicut enim Freindio laudi tribuitur "quod illam attractionis vim, quam in grandiori cœlestium mole perspexerat Newtonus, rebus chemicis accommodaverit," ita Wollastoni famam auxit, quod in eruenda illa nova de Atomorum conjugio doctrina, quæ in suo sæculo primum innotuerat, ipse cum præclaro illo philosopho se consociaverit, qui, si non æmulus sit Newtoni (quis enim tanto nomini par sit aut secundus?) at certe hominum qui nunc sunt proximos illi honores in rebus physicis occupavit. Postquam enim Daltonus nova philosophiæ suæ rudimenta exposuerat, et quasi crudam ejus effigiem in lucem protulerat, noster primo quasi intuitu veram esse et naturæ accommodatam intellexit, neque unquam cessavit, quin aut experimentis eam confirmaret, aut auctoritate sua aliis commendaret. Inerat enim Wollastono ea perspicacitas, ut quæ communi hominum sensui parum obvia essent, ea statim animo arriperet atque complecteretur; sicut enim ex repertis ejus accepimus, esse quasdam chordas, quæ sonos edant, quibusdam animalibus vocales, cæterorum vero auribus omnino non percipiendas, ita ex ipsius exemplo docemur, inesse rebus notas quasdam, quæ, quamquam præ nimia sua tenuitate vulgi captum fugiant, discerni tamen atque intelligi possunt, si modo philosophum scrutatorem sui atque interpretem invenerint. Oratio ex Harveii Instituto habita 25 die Junii, 1845, authore Carolo G. B. Daubeney, M.D. p. 10]

(Volume II, page 438)

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