Forbes, David (1828-1876) (DNB00)

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FORBES, DAVID (1828–1876), geologist and philologist, born at Douglas, Isle of Man, on 6 Sept. 1828, was one of the nine children of Edward Forbes of Oakhill and Croukbane, near Douglas, and Jane, eldest daughter and heiress of William Teare of the same island. He was younger brother of Edward Forbes [q. v.] David Forbes showed an early taste for chemistry; he was sent to school at Brentwood in Essex, whence he passed to Edinburgh University. Leaving Edinburgh about the age of nineteen, Forbes spent some months in the metallurgical laboratory of Dr. Percy in Birmingham, but he was still under twenty when he accompanied Mr. Brooke Evans to Norway, where he received the appointment of superintendent of the mining and metallurgical works at Espedal, a post which he held for ten years. Forbes showed courage in arming four hundred of his miners to aid the government against a threatened revolution in 1848, and received the personal thanks of the king. He was elected fellow of the Royal Society in June 1856. Entering into partnership with the firm of Evans & Askin, nickel-smelters of Birmingham, Forbes went to South America in 1857 in search of the ores of nickel and cobalt. From 1857 to 1860 he traversed the greater part of Bolivia and Peru, and embodied his observations on the minerals and rock-structure of those countries in a classical paper, which is printed in the ‘Quarterly Journal’ of the Geological Society for 1860. He visited England in 1860, when it was proposed to appoint him as a representative of the English government in South America. Sir Roderick Murchison and Lord John Russell were memorialised, but the appointment was not considered necessary. Returning to South America he traversed the mining districts of the Cordilleras, and increased the large collection of minerals already formed in Norway. From South America Forbes made an expedition to the South Sea Islands, studying more especially their volcanic phenomena. In 1866 he travelled in Europe and in Africa. He had a talent for learning languages, and a remarkable power of securing the confidence of the half-savage miners of America. Forbes settled in England, and became foreign secretary to the Iron and Steel Institute. In that capacity he wrote the half-yearly reports on the progress of metal-working abroad which appeared in the journal of the institute from 1871 to 1876. During his later years Forbes was so entirely absorbed in his literary and scientific pursuits that he neglected to take sufficient exercise; the death of his wife, to whom he was profoundly attached, caused him to suffer severe mental trouble; his constitution, already enfeebled by a recurrent fever caught in South America, gave way, and he died on 5 Dec. 1876. Many representative men of science attended his funeral at Kensal Green cemetery, London, on 12 Dec. 1876. Forbes joined the Geological Society in 1853, and had been one of the secretaries since 1871. He was also a member of the Ethnological Society, to which he contributed a paper on the ‘Aymara Indians of Bolivia and Peru.’

He wrote fifty-eight papers on scientific subjects, including three in conjunction with other investigators. Sixteen of his papers appeared in the ‘Geological Magazine’ from 1866 to 1872. His first paper, ‘On a Simple Method of Determining the Free and Combined Ammonia and Water in Guano and other Manures,’ appeared while he was a lad of seventeen in the ‘Chemical Gazette’ for 1845. Among his last papers were those ‘On Aerolites from the Coast of Greenland,’ published in the ‘Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society’ for 1872, and ‘The Application of the Blow-pipe to the Quantitative Determination or Assay of Certain Minerals’ in the ‘Journal of the Chemical Society’ for 1877. He was one of the first to apply the microscope to the study of rocks, and his paper in the ‘Popular Science Review’ on ‘The Microscope in Geology’ was translated, and appeared in the leading foreign scientific periodicals. Igneous and metamorphic phenomena occupied much of Forbes's attention, and at Espedal he experimented on a large scale on the action of heat on minerals and rocks. He wrote some important papers on this subject, including ‘The Causes producing Foliation in Rocks’ (Geological Society, 1855), ‘The Igneous Rocks of Staffordshire’ (‘Geol. Mag.’ iii. 23), and ‘On the Contraction of Igneous Rocks in Cooling’ (‘Geol. Mag.’ vii. 1). Forbes tried hard to direct the attention of British geologists to chemical geology. His views are expressed in his articles on ‘Chemical Geology’ (‘Chemical News,’ 1867 and 1868) and ‘On the Chemistry of the Primeval Earth’ (‘Geol. Mag.’ 1867, p. 433, and 1868, p. 105). During his travels he had amassed a large fund of geological information, of which only a part was used in his published papers. He postponed an intended publication until too late.

[Geol. Mag., 1877, p. 45, obituary notice by Professor John Morris; Nature, xv. 139; Quart. Journ. Geol. Soc., president's address, 1877, pp. 41–8; Journal of the Iron and Steel Institute, 1876, pp. 519–24; Times, 12 Dec. 1876, p. 6.]

W. J. H.