Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Guthrie, Frederick

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GUTHRIE, FREDERICK (1833–1886), scientific writer, son of Alexander Guthrie, a London tradesman, was born in Bayswater, 15 Oct. 1833. He was educated at University School and College, London, where his brother Francis (afterwards principal of the South African College, Cape Town) distinguished himself in mathematics. Frederick studied chemistry under Professors Graham and Williamson, and mathematics under De Morgan. Henry Watts, F.R.S., then assistant in the chemical laboratory, had been his private tutor until he was twelve years old. Early in 1854 Guthrie went to Germany, and studied chemistry at Heidelberg under Bunsen, and at Marburg under Kolbe, at the latter place taking his degree of Ph.D. with a thesis (his first published paper) 'Ueber die chemische Constitution der ätherschwefelsauren Salze und über Amyloxydphosphorsäure.' Returning to England he graduated B.A. at London in 1855, and next year was appointed assistant to Dr. Frankland, then professor of chemistry at Owens College, Manchester. In 1859 Guthrie passed to a similar post at Edinburgh under Lyon Playfair, and in May 1861 he accepted the professorship of chemistry and physics in the Royal College, Mauritius, which he held for six years, having for a colleague Mr. Walter Besant, with whom he formed an enduring friendship. In 1869 Guthrie was elected lecturer (afterwards professor) in the newly established Normal School of Science at South Kensington, a position which he retained till his death (from cancer of the throat) on 21 Oct. 1886. He was buried in Kensal Green cemetery. Guthrie was four times married. His widow received a pension from the civil list.

Guthrie's early work was chiefly chemical. His first paper printed in English was 'On Iodide of Acetyle' in the 'Philosophical Magazine' for 1857; and in 1858 he published a paper 'On the Action of Light on Silver Chloride' in the 'Journal of the Chemical Society.'

While in the Mauritius he pursued his first published investigations on physical problems, the results being communicated to the Royal Society in 1864 and 1865 in two papers on 'Drops' and one on 'Bubbles.' At the same time he published a paper on the 'Iodide of Iodammonium,' and a pamphlet on 'The Sugar-Cane and Cane-Sugar,' and made complete analyses of the waters of the chief rivers of the island.

In 1870 Guthrie discovered the remarkable phenomenon of 'Approach caused by Vibration,' as seen, for example, in the apparent attraction exerted by a vibrating tuning-fork on a light object suspended in the air near it. Among numerous other researches may be mentioned: on the thermal conductivity of liquids, on stationary vibrations of liquids in circular and rectangular troughs, on salt solutions and attached water, including the discovery of 'cryohydrates,' and on 'Eutexia,' an investigation into the properties (especially the melting points) of metallic alloys and mixtures of salts.

Guthrie's students at South Kensington included large numbers of the 'certificated science teachers' of this country, and for them he devised a very practical mode of teaching physics, by which the learner constructs his own apparatus. They can testify to his unvarying kindness and to his unflagging energy.

Guthrie was the founder of the Physical Society of London in 1873. Its meetings were held in his rooms at South Kensington, and he assumed the arduous post of 'demonstrator,' not consenting to fill the presidential chair until 1884. Early in 1886 he delivered three lectures on 'Science Teaching' before the Society of Arts. His teaching was always eminently experimental and practical; and he had but slight respect for the work of mathematical as distinguished from experimental physicists. Guthrie was a good French and German scholar, and his literary abilities were considerable. He published two poems, written in early life, and exhibiting genuine poetical power and considerable metrical skill: 'The Jew. A Poem,' by Frederick Cerny, 1863; and in 1877, and under the same pseudonym, 'Logroño, a Metric Drama in two Acts.' His scientific books were, 'Elements of Heat and Non-Metallic Chemistry,' 1868; 'Magnetism and Electricity,' 1873; 'Introduction to Physics;' and the 'First Book of Knowledge.'

Guthrie was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1859, and a fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1873. Altogether he published about forty papers on chemistry and physics, only about one-third of these, however, belonging to chemistry.

[Proceedings of the Physical Society for 1887, viii. 9-13 (notice by Professor Carey Foster); Nature, 4 Nov. 1886, pp. 8-10.]

W. J. H.