Baker, Henry (1698-1774) (DNB00)

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BAKER, HENRY, F.R.S. (1698–1774), naturalist and poet, was born in Chancery Lane, 8 May 1698, the son of William Baker, a clerk in chancery. In his fifteenth year he was apprenticed to John Parker, bookseller, whose shop was afterwards occupied by Dodsley, of the 'Annual Register.' At the close of his indentures in 1720, Baker went on a visit to John Forster, a relative, who had a daughter, then eight years old, born deaf and dumb. Although considerable attention had already been given in England to the education of deaf mutes, no method of instruction was in general use; and with characteristic ingenuity Baker set himself to instruct her by an improved system of his own. His experiment was so successful that he resolved to make the education of deaf mutes his chief employment: and his services being in great demand among the upper classes, he soon realised a substantial fortune. Regarding the character of his method there is no information, for he wished to retain his own secret, and it is said took a bond of 100l. from each pupil not to divulge it. His remarkable success attracted the attention of Defoe, who invited him to his house; and in April 1729, after some delay in the arrangement of settlements, he married Defoe's youngest daughter, Sophia.

In the earlier period of his life, Baker devoted much of his leisure to the writing of verse. The 'Invocation of Health' appeared in 1723 without his sanction, and in the same year he published 'Original Poems,' a volume which was reprinted in 1725. Some indication of the result of his studies in natural science was given by the publication in 1727 of 'The Universe, a Poem intended to restrain the Pride of Man,' the last edition of which was that of 1805, with a short life prefixed. In 1737 he brought out, in two volumes, 'Medulla Poetarum Romanorum,' a selection from the Roman poets, with translations; and in 1739 be published a translation of Molière. His verse is spirited and rhythmical, but the sentiments are hackneyed, and the wit artificial, true poetic inspiration being imitated by sounding but commonplace rhetoric. In 1728, under the name of Henry Stonecastle, he began, along with Defoe, the 'Universal Spectator and Weekly Journal,' the first number being written by Defoe. The copy of the journal which belonged to Baker is now in the Hope collection of newspapers in the Bodleian Library, and attached to it there is a tabular statement by Baker of the authors of the several essays. The last of those written by Baker was published 19 May 1733.

In January 1740, Baker was elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, and in March following a fellow of the Royal Society. Along with Mr. Folkes he began to make experiments on the polypus, and continuing them after Mr. Folkes was too much immersed in other matters to give the subject his attention, he published the result of his observations in the 'Philosophical Transactions,' and afterwards, in 1743, in a separate treatise. The same year appeared 'The Microscope made Easy,' a work which at once became popular, and went through several editions. In 1744 he was awarded the Copley medal for his microscopical experiments on the crystallisations and configurations of saline particles. His earlier treatise was supplemented, in 1753. by the publication, in two parts, of 'Employment for the Microscope,' which attracted an equal amount of attention. These two works contain the bulk of his more important communications on the subject to the Royal Society. Besides communicating to the society many interesting results of his own experiments, he supplied to it much important information by means of the extensive correspondence he carried on with men of science of other countries. In this way we also owe to him the introduction into England of the Alpine strawberry and of the rhubarb plant (Rheum palmatum). He took a very active part in the establishment of the Society of Arts in 1754. For a considerable time he discharged gratuitously the office of secretary, and he was for many years chairman of the committee of accounts. He died at his apartments in the Strand 25 Nov. 1774. Nichols, in his 'Anecdotes of Bowyer,' states that he was buried in the churchyard of St.Mary-le-Strand, but there is no mention of his burial in the register. His two sons, David Erskine Baker and Henry Baker, are noticed separately. The bulk of his property and his manuscripts were bequeathed to his grandson, William Baker, afterwards rector of Lyndon and South Luffenham, Rutlandshire. By his will he bequeathed to the Royal Society 100l. for the institution of an oration, now known as the Bakerian. He had formed an extensive natural history and antiquarian collection, which was sold by auction on 18 March 1775 and the nine following days.

[Biographia Britannica, ed. Kippis, i. 525—8 (imperfect and incorrect); Nichols's Anecdotes of Wm. Bowyer. 413-16, 596. 645; Chalmers's Biog. Dict. iii. 337-8; Wilson's Life of Defoe, iii. 549-50,603-5, 646-7; Lee's Life of Defoe, 439, 441, 455-9; Nichols's Literary Anecdotes, v. 272-7; Correspondence of Dr. Philip Doddridge; Phil. Trans.; MSS. Sloane 4435 and 4436; M8S. Egerton 738 and 834.]

T. F. H.