Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Brownrigg, William

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BROWNRIGG, WILLIAM (1711–1800), physician and chemist, was born at High Close Hall, Cumberland, 24 March 1711. After studying medicine in London for two years, he completed his medical education at Leyden, graduating M.D. in 1737, and publishing an elaborate thesis, ‘De Praxi Medica ineunda.’ Entering upon practice in Whitehaven, he commenced to investigate the gaseous exhalations from the neighbouring coal-mines. In 1741 he communicated several papers on the subject to the Royal Society, and was elected F.R.S.; but his papers were not published, at his own request, as he intended to prepare a complete work. He had a laboratory erected in Whitehaven and supplied with a constant stream of firedamp from the mines, and he constructed furnaces by which great variations of heat could be obtained. His papers brought him into communication with Sir Hans Sloane, Dr. Hales, and other eminent men; and with their advice and and he undertook to prepare a general history of damps, the outlines of which Hales read and submitted to the Royal Society in 1741. But Brownrigg, strangely enough, could never be induced to publish this research, and thus his fame has been much obscured. He learnt to foretell explosions in the mines by the rapidity of fall of the barometer, and was often consulted by proprietors of collieries. An extract from the essay read before the Royal Society in 1741, 'On the Uses of a Knowledge of Mineral Exhalations when applied to discover the Principles and Pronerties of Mineral Waters, the Nature of Burning Fountains, and those Poisonous Lakes called Avemi,' was published in 'Philosophical Transactions,' lv. 236, as an appendix to his paper on 'Spa Water.' In it he endeavours to prove that the distinguishing qualities of most mineral waters depend on a particular kind of air, which forms a considerable part of their composition ; and that this air diifers in no respect from choke-damp. Sulphureous waters he also shows to depend for their special qualities on a kind of fire-damp. He had a remarkable prescience of the import of these gases, and came very near to liing a chemical discoverer of the first rank. He was probably the first person acquainted with the acid nature of fixed air, or carbonic acid gas. A visit to Spa was subsequently made the occasion of some experiments on the air given off by Spa water. These are recounted in 'Philosophical Transactions,' lv. 218, and for them Brownrigg received the Copley medal of the Royal Society. He here showed conclusively that this gas is destructive to animal life. He also proved that the same gas is the solvent of various earths in the water, and that when these have been precipitated from it, they can be redissolved after again dissolving the gas in the water. In several particulars his researches were parallel with those of Priestley, Black, and Cavendish. His later observations are given in 'Philosophical Transactions,' lxiv. 357-71.

In 1748 Brownrigg published a valuable book 'On the Art of making Common Salt.' An abridgment of the work by W. Watson, F.R.S., was inserted in 'Philosophical Transactions,' xlv. 351-72. Brownrigg was also the first to give any detailed accounts of platina, as brought by his relative, Charles Wood, from the West Indies in 1741. These are published, with experiments by Brownrigg, in 'Philosophical Transactions,' xlvi. 584-96. Brownrigg showed that no known body approached nearer to gold. Another valuable paper of Brownrigg s was one criticising Dr. Hales's method of distillation by the united force of air and fire (Phil. Trans, xlix. 334). In it he makes most original suggestions for increasing the expansion of steam by mechanical agitation, and by the passing of steam into water in the steam-engine. In 1771, when great alarm was excited by outbreaks of the plague on the continent, Brownrigg published 'Considerations on the Means of preventing the Communication of Pestilential Contagion, and the Methods by which it is conveyed from Place to Place and from one Person to another;' but this, though characterised both by research and good judgement, met with no great success, inasmuch as the threatened epidemic did not reach Britain. The association of Brownrigg in 1772 with Benjamin Franklin in the experiment of stilling Derwentwater during a storm by pouring oil upon it is interesting, and it led to the publication of an account of Franklin's experiments on the subject (ib. lxiv. 445). The last communication from Brownrigg to the Royal Society was a description of twenty specimens of Epsom salts, green vitriol, &c., obtained from the coal-mines at Whitehaven (ib. lxiv. 481). Previous to this he had retired to his paternal estate at Ormathwaite, near KeswicK, where he spent a quiet old age, surviving till 6 Jan. 1800. His scientific as well as professional fame would have brought him into great practice if he could have been persuaded to settle in London. But nothing could induce him to quit his native district. He personally knew or corresponded with many of the most eminent scientific men of his day, English and continental. He was undoubtedly a genuine and original experimental philosopher, simple-minded, and somewhat too modest as to his personal claims. He was very conversant with classics, mathematics, and modern languages, an intelligent agriculturist, an active magistrate, a humane and benevolent man, and a firm believer in Christianity.

[Dixon's Literary Life of W. Brownrigg, 1801.]

G. T. B.