American Medical Biographies/Woodhouse, James

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Woodhouse, James (1770–1809)

James Woodhouse, graduate in medicine and eminent pioneer American scientist and chemist, was born in Philadelphia, November 17, 1770. His father was William Woodhouse, bookseller and stationer; his mother was Anne Martin.

His education, begun at a private school, was continued at the grammar school and the University of Pennsylvania, where in 1787 he received his A. B. degree, and then began to study medicine as pupil of Benjamin Rush, graduating in 1792, with a thesis on the persimmon. He experimented with the expressed juice of the immature fruit, "the astringency of which cannot be conceived of, but by those who have bitten the unripe plum!"

He practised medicine and wrote on hydrocephalus, but his heart was from the first, in experimental chemistry, stimulated by the residence of Priestley in the state, and by the thrill of the new era opened up by the discoveries of Lavoisier whose earliest and best representative he was.

In 1791 he volunteered as surgeon under General St. Clair, bound on a punitive expedition sent West to deal with the Indians; he returned in four months, having escaped the terrible defeat of the fourth of November.

At the death of Hutchinson, on the declination of Priestley, and following the death of Carson, he was elected in 1795 to the chair of chemistry in the University of Pennsylvania. His writings appear in the Medical Repository, of New York, in Coxe's Medical Museum, of Philadelphia, and in the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society.

He experimented in the comparative values of coal, demonstrating the superiority for intensity and regularity of heat of the Lehigh anthracite of Northampton County, Pa., over the bituminous of Virginia.

In 1802 he visited England and France and met Davy and other chemists; while in London he published "Experiments and Observations on the Vegetation of Plants," in Nicholson's Philosophical Journal, Vol. 2. He was interested in geology, mineralogy, plants and insects. He wrote on cantharides and experimented with various species of meloe. He had a lively discussion on the nature of basaltic columns in North Carolina which had been claimed as the prehistoric remains of some great race.

In 1796 he was made a member of the American Philosophical Society. His "Young Chemist's Pocket Companion" (1797) detailed over 100 experiments with a portable laboratory. He edited Chaptal's Elements of Chemistry (1807) with copious notes. In 1798 we find him busy with nitre, "well known to be the basis of gunpowder, a substance of indispensable necessity even in defensive war."

Woodhouse and Lavoisier and their contemporaries brought the new chemistry, born of the labors of men like Joseph Priestley, out of her swaddling clothes, and put an end, by precise well-ordered methods, to the era of blind experiment immediately preceding them when the expert investigation proceeded by "heating a substance, or treating it with some reagent, to see what would happen."

He introduced the exact methods of the weight and the balance into chemistry in this country, and was ever to be found in the midst of his reagents and crucibles making experiments; his writings are saturated with the atmosphere of the laboratory, of which he was the sprite moving in the midst of his furnaces even in hottest summer weather to the astonishment and dismay of his friends, (Caldwell). His controversy with Priestley dealt its death blow to the phlogiston theory of Stahl, and removed the last clog from the new chemistry.

He writes in the Medical Repository for 1802 on the decomposition of water which he calls "the corner stone of modern chemistry." He discovered an inexpensive way of making potassium (1808), following Davy's great discovery of the elements of potassium and sodium (1807). He experimented in 1802 with nitrous oxide gas, discovered by Priestley, the anesthetic effects of which were found out by Davy.

Benjamin Silliman studied under him, and Robert Hare (q.v.), the inventor of the oxyhydrogen blowpipe, was his pupil.

He died of apoplexy June 4, 1809, extinguishing at an early age one of the brightest stars in the American firmament of science.