Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wollaston, William Hyde

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Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 62
Wollaston, William Hyde by [[Author:Philip Joseph Hartog

|Philip Joseph Hartog]] and [[Author:Charles Herbert Lees

|Charles Herbert Lees]]

WOLLASTON, WILLIAM HYDE (1766–1828), physiologist, chemist, and physicist, third son of Francis Wollaston [q. v.] and his wife, Althea Hyde, was born at East Dereham, Norfolk, on 6 Aug. and baptised on 8 Aug. 1766. Francis John Hyde Wollaston [q. v.] was his brother. He went first to the private school of a Mr. Williams at Lewisham for two years, and then to Charterhouse on 13 June 1774; was on the foundation, and left the school on 24 June 1778. On 6 July 1782 he was admitted a pensioner of Caius College, Cambridge, was a scholar from Michaelmas 1782 to Christmas 1787, proceeded M.B. in 1788 and M.D. in 1793. He was appointed a senior fellow at Christmas 1787, and retained his fellowship till his death; he was also Tancred student, held the offices of Greek and Hebrew lecturer, and was repeatedly appointed to make the Thruston speech. During his residence in Cambridge he became intimate with John Brinkley [q. v.], the astronomer royal for Ireland, and John Pond [q. v.], and studied astronomy with their assistance. On 7 Feb. 1793 he was proposed, on 9 May 1793 elected, and on 6 March 1794 admitted F.R.S. His certificate was signed by his uncle, William Heberden the elder [q. v.], Hon. Henry Cavendish [q. v.], Sir William Herschel [q. v.], his father, and others.

On leaving Cambridge he went as a physician to Huntingdon in 1789 (Record of the Royal Society, p. 208), and thence to Bury St. Edmund's, where his uncle, Dr. Charlton Wollaston (see Munk, Coll. of Phys.), had practised. Here he made acquaintance with Rev. Henry Hasted (elected F.R.S. 1812, fellow of Christ's College, Cambridge; Graduati Cantabr. 1856), who became one of his closest friends, and with whom he carried on a correspondence throughout his life. On 14 April 1794 he was admitted candidate, and on 30 March 1795 fellow, of the Royal College of Physicians, of which he became censor in 1798, and an elect on 13 Feb. 1824 on the death of James Hervey.

By the advice of his friends he went to London, and set up practice at No. 18 Cecil Street, Strand, in 1797, and from his house noticed the mirage on the Thames, an occurrence which, though not rare, is easily overlooked.

His devotion to various branches of natural science, including physics, chemistry, and botany, had been increasing, and in 1800 he decided to retire from medical practice. Sir John Barrow [q. v.] (Sketches of the Royal Society, p. 55) attributes this determination to Wollaston's pique at his failure to obtain the appointment as physician at St. George's Hospital; but the true explanation lies probably in his sensitiveness and over-anxiety for his patients. On one occasion a question with regard to a patient caused him to burst into tears; of his decision to abandon medicine he writes to Hasted on 29 Dec. 1800: ‘Allow me to decline the mental flagellation called anxiety, compared with which the loss of thousands of pounds is as a fleabite.’ Wollaston is stated to have received a legacy at this time; his means were, at any rate, insufficient, and in abandoning the ‘terra firma of physic’ he writes that he ‘may have erred egregiously and be ruined.’ It was to chemical research that he looked to replace the renounced ‘thousands.’ In 1801 he took a house, No. 14 Buckingham Street, Fitzroy Square, and at the back set up a laboratory, whose privacy he guarded to the utmost (for anecdotes on this point see G. Wilson's Religio Chemici, p. 287). Within five years he had discovered a process for making platinum malleable, which he kept secret till near his death, and which brought him in a fortune of about 30,000l.; while at the same time his published researches on optics and chemistry placed him among the foremost scientific men of Europe. In 1802 he was awarded the Copley medal, and on 30 Nov. 1804 he was elected secretary of the Royal Society, a post which he retained till 30 Nov. 1816; later he was frequently elected a vice-president.

On the illness and death of Sir Joseph Banks [q. v.] the council of the Royal Society proposed, in accordance with Banks's own desire, to nominate Wollaston as his successor in the chair; but, knowing the ambitions of Sir Humphry Davy [q. v.], Wollaston declined a contest, although he consented to act as president ad interim from 29 June 1820 till the election day on 30 Nov. following. In 1823 he was elected a foreign associate of the French Academy of Sciences.

The chief events in Wollaston's life are his discoveries, which flowed in uninterrupted succession from 1800 down to the time of his death, and of which an account is given below. In 1807 it was suggested that his brother, Francis John Hyde Wollaston [q. v.], on being appointed master of Sidney-Sussex College, Cambridge, should resign the Jacksonian professorship, which Wollaston was anxious to obtain; but on Francis Wollaston's resignation in 1813 the post was given to William Farish [q. v.]

Each year in the vacation of the Royal Society Wollaston spent some time in travelling about in England or abroad, generally with one or more companions. His chief interest was in seeing manufactures; of all the objects he saw, the machinery of Manchester perhaps ‘left the most vivid impression.’ But his lively letters to Hasted show him to be keenly concerned in general affairs. In 1814 a visit to France, immediately on the conclusion of peace, gave him ‘the greatest amount of gratification that can be compressed into three weeks.’

Since 1800 Wollaston had suffered occasionally from partial blindness in both eyes (see infra). Towards the end of 1827 he was attacked by numbness in the left arm, and in July 1828 the left pupil became insensible. He explained his symptoms to a medical friend as if they were those of another person, and on hearing that they probably signified tumour of the brain, with an early termination, he set about dictating papers on all his still unrecorded work, many of these being published posthumously. He had experiments carried on under his direction in a room adjoining his sick-room ‘for many days previous to his death,’ which took place on 22 Dec. 1828 at his house, No. 1 Dorset Street. Wollaston was buried at Chislehurst. His house was afterwards inhabited by his friend Charles Babbage [q. v.] His manuscript papers passed to Henry Warburton, who intended to use them for a memoir; after Warburton's death they went to Mrs. Somerville, but on her death they could not be found. Wollaston published fifty-six papers on ‘pathology, physiology, chemistry, optics, mineralogy, crystallography, astronomy, electricity, mechanics, and botany,’ and almost every paper marks a distinct advance in the particular science concerned. The majority were read before the Royal Society, and published in the ‘Philosophical Transactions.’ The influence of Wollaston's medical training is seen in his first paper on ‘calculi’ (read 22 June 1797), in which he showed that in addition to calculi consisting of uric acid, previously discovered by Scheele, calculi of the bladder might consist of calcium phosphate, magnesium ammonium phosphate, and calcium oxalate (or mixtures of these), to which in 1810 he added ‘cystic oxide,’ now called cystin, thus practically exhausting the subject and rendering rational treatment possible. He also investigated the composition of prostatic and of gouty calculi. In his Croonian lecture in 1809 he showed in a strikingly simple and ingenious way, by means of the ‘muscular murmur,’ that each muscular effort, apparently simple, consists of contractions repeated at intervals of one twentieth or thirtieth of a second. In February 1824, having noticed that at times he saw only half of every object with both eyes, he put forward his important theory of the ‘semi-decussation of the optic nerves,’ now generally accepted. In May 1824 he gave an ingenious explanation of the apparent direction of eyes in a portrait, illustrated by his friend Sir Thomas Lawrence [q. v.]

The investigation of platinum led Wollaston to discover palladium in the platinum ores. Being unwilling to disclose the subject of his work, in April 1803 he sent specimens of the metal (with an anonymous statement of its properties) for sale at the shop of a Mrs. Forster, 26 Gerrard Street, Soho. Richard Chenevix (1774–1830) [q. v.] bought up the stock, worked at it for a month, and read a paper before the Royal Society showing that palladium was not, ‘as was shamefully announced,’ ‘a new simple metal,’ but an alloy of platinum with mercury. Wollaston tried to dissuade Chenevix from his views, but it was not until he had discovered a second platinum metal, rhodium (in 1804), and obtained pure platinum, thus entirely completing his investigation, that he fully acknowledged that the discovery was his in a letter to ‘Nicholson's Journal’ dated 23 Feb. 1805. Wollaston's accuracy was beyond a doubt; and the effect of his conduct, says Thomas Thomson, ‘was to destroy the chemical reputation of Chenevix,’ who thereupon abandoned the science (see Phil. Trans. 1803 pp. 290, 298, 1804 p. 419, 1805 p. 104; Nicholson's Journal, 1803 v. 137, 1804 vii. 75, 159, 1805 x. 204; Annales de Chémie, 1808, lxvi. 83).

Dalton's atomic theory had been first clearly enunciated in 1807 in Thomson's ‘System of Chemistry’ (3rd ed. iii. 425) [see Thomson, Thomas, 1773–1852]. Wollaston accepted it at once, and tried with Thomson's help to convert Sir Humphry Davy [q. v.], but in vain. On 14 Jan. 1808 Thomson read before the Royal Society his well-known paper on the two kinds of oxalates, which was followed on 28 Jan. by Wollaston's more comprehensive memoir on ‘Super-acid and Sub-acid Salts,’ the two papers affording most powerful support to Dalton's views. Wollaston, who had discovered the striking instances of the law of multiple proportions quoted in his memoir some time previously, characteristically withheld them till he should ascertain the cause ‘of so regular a relation;’ but he now put forward the idea that it would be necessary later to acquire ‘a geometrical conception’ in three dimensions of the relative arrangement of the atoms, a suggestion that since 1870 has been realised in the great developments of stereo-chemistry. Wollaston's most important paper in theoretical chemistry is that ‘On a Synoptic Scale of Equivalents,’ published in 1814. In this he proposes, in order to avoid undue use of hypothesis, to replace Dalton's ‘atomic weights’ by ‘equivalents’ which were to express the bare facts of quantitative analysis. Wollaston's criticism of Dalton in this paper is fundamental; but his use of the word ‘equivalent’ was unfortunate, and led to confusion, for which he has been severely criticised (Ladenburg, Entwickelungsgesch. der Chemie, pp. 69–71). The battle between ‘atomic weights’ and ‘equivalents’ lasted, with many fluctuations, down to recent times. For the practical calculations of analysis Wollaston invented a slide rule, which was much used for a considerable time.

In 1814 Wollaston and Smithson Tennant [q. v.], while investigating the subject of gas explosions for the Royal Society, discovered that explosions will not pass through a small tube, a fact utilised independently by Davy in his safety lamp in 1815 (Phil. Trans. 1816, p. 8).

The discovery of a method for producing pure platinum and welding it into vessels, made about 1804 and published as the Bakerian lecture in 1828, has proved of the highest importance, scientific and commercial, from the fact that the metal is attacked by extremely few chemical reagents. The Royal Society in 1828 awarded Wollaston a royal medal for his work. Wollaston himself constructed platinum vessels for the concentration of sulphuric acid for vitriol makers. It was from this source and from royalties on processes contrived by him for various other manufacturers that he accumulated his considerable fortune (English Cyclopædia).

As an inventor of optical apparatus Wollaston ranks very high. In 1802 he described the total-reflection method for the measurement of refractivity, which is applicable to opaque as well as to transparent bodies, and has since been extensively developed by Pulfrich and Abbe; and it was in the same paper that he drew attention to the dark lines (since known as Fraunhofer lines) in the solar spectrum, which he considered, however, as merely serving to separate the ‘four colours’ of the spectrum from one another. In 1803 he invented ‘periscopic’ spectacles, useful when oblique vision is necessary; and in 1807 he patented the camera lucida (Nicholson's Journal, xvii. 1), an instrument subsequently improved by Amici and others, which has proved of the greatest value in surveying, in copying drawings, and in drawing objects under the microscope. It was the desire to fix the image of the camera lucida that led William Henry Fox Talbot [q. v.] to his discoveries in photography. In 1809 Wollaston invented the reflecting goniometer, which first rendered possible the exact measurement of crystals and determination of minerals, and which was till recently used in its original form. In 1812 he described a periscopic camera obscura and microscope, combining specially distinct vision with a wide aperture. In 1820, in a paper ‘On the Method of cutting Rock Crystals for Micrometers,’ he described the double-image prism named after him, which was an improvement on that invented by Abbé Alexis Marie Rochon, who had kept its construction secret. In a posthumous paper published in 1829 was described a microscopic doublet still used in its original form and as the objective of the compound microscope.

Wollaston also contributed to theoretical optics. He adopted the wave-theory of light, which at the beginning of the century was revived and applied to the explanation of interference phenomena by his friend Thomas Young (1773–1829) [q.v.] (see letter from Wollaston in Peacock's Life of Young, p. 374); and in 1802 he showed that measurements of the refractive index of Iceland spar in different directions agreed with Christian Huygens's construction for the wave-surface (1690). This brought him a bitter and contemptuous criticism from Brougham in the ‘Edinburgh Review’ (1803, ii. 99).

In 1801 Wollaston established the important physical principle that ‘galvanic’ and ‘frictional’ electricity are of the same nature, and stated that the action of the voltaic cell was due to the oxidation of the zinc. In April 1821 he noticed that there was ‘a power … acting circumferentially round’ the axis of a wire carrying a current, and tried in Davy's laboratory to make such a wire revolve on its axis. His unsuccessful experiment led to a grave charge of plagiarism being made subsequently against Michael Faraday [q. v.]; but Wollaston, says Faraday, behaved with a ‘kindness and liberality’ ‘which has been constant throughout the affair,’ and the charge was ultimately acknowledged to be unfounded. Henry Warburton [q. v.], one of Wollaston's most intimate friends, played a part in the affair (Bence Jones, Life … of Faraday, 1870, i. 338–53).

Among Wollaston's other papers may be mentioned those ‘On Percussion’ (1816) (in which he adopts the Leibnitzian definition of ‘mechanic force’ as opposed to the Cartesian); ‘On Chemical Effects of Light’ (1804); that on ‘Fairy-Rings’ (in which he fully explained the rôle of fungi in these phenomena) (1807); ‘On a Method of Drawing Extremely Fine Wires’ (still used in the construction of the bolometer) (Phil. Trans. 1813, p. 114); ‘On the Finite Extent of the Atmosphere’ (ib. 1822, p. 89); ‘On a Method of comparing the Light of the Sun with that of the Fixed Stars’ (ib. 1829, p. 19).

Wollaston served with Young and Henry Kater [q. v.] as commissioner of the Royal Society on the board of longitude from its reconstitution in 1818 until the abolition in 1828 of this ‘only ostensible link which connected the cultivation of science with the government of the country.’ In 1814 Wollaston suggested in evidence before a committee of the House of Commons the replacement of the various gallons then in use by a gallon containing ten pounds of water at a given temperature. This measure, known as the ‘imperial gallon,’ was adopted in the ‘Weights and Measures Act of 1824.’ He was a member of the royal commission on weights and measures that rejected the adoption of the decimal system of weights and measures (Report of Commission, 24 June 1819).

The majority of Wollaston's papers are short and apt in expression. ‘The most singular characteristic of Wollaston's mind was the plain and distinct line which separated what he knew from what he did not know’ (Babbage); his ‘predominant principle was to avoid error.’ This characteristic caution and sureness approaching infallibility struck Wollaston's contemporaries most, and they called him familiarly ‘the Pope;’ but the multiplicity of his discoveries and inventions shows that his caution was only the self-imposed limit to a fertile and active imagination. Wollaston had extraordinary dexterity, the ‘genius of the fingertips,’ and eyesight so keen that he could distinguish minute plants while on horseback (Hasted). He was regarded as the most skilful chemist and mineralogist of his day, and his advice was greatly sought after. In character Wollaston was essentially self-contained; his chief object in life was to satisfy the questionings of his own intelligence. He was more than usually resentful of curiosity about his affairs; by the ‘inquisition’ of the commissioners of income in 1800 his usual calm was changed ‘into a fever of extreme indignation.’ He was a warm and genial friend. He refused (10 April 1823) a request of his brother Henry to procure him a place in the customs, on the ground that he would lose independence by soliciting a favour, but enclosed a stock receipt for 10,000l. in consols with his refusal. Towards the end of his life he took to fly-fishing with Davy, to shooting and sport in general. ‘Dr. Wollaston,’ says Lockhart, describing an expedition from Abbotsford to see a coursing match ‘… with his noble serene dignity of countenance might have passed for a sporting archbishop’ (Life of Scott, 1837, v. 7).

J. Jackson, R.A., painted two portraits of Wollaston: the one was presented by his family to the Royal Society, and was engraved by Skelton; the second was painted by Jackson for Mrs. Mary Somerville [q. v.], was left by her to F. L. Wollaston, and is now in the possession of George Hyde Wollaston, esq., of Wotton-under-Edge; a beautiful mezzotint of this portrait was executed by William Ward, A.R.A. Sir Thomas Lawrence also painted a portrait of Wollaston, engraved by F. C. Lewis; Lane the lithographer made a small pencil-drawing of Wollaston, now in the possession of G. H. Wollaston, esq. There is also a portrait in Walker's ‘Distinguished Men of Science.’ Sir Francis Legatt Chantrey [q. v.] modelled a head of Wollaston for the Geological Society's Wollaston medal.

On 8 Dec. 1828 Wollaston transferred 1,000l. consols to the Geological Society (of which he had been a fellow since 1812), with injunctions to expend the dividends as nearly as may be annually. This is now called ‘the Wollaston Fund,’ from which the society awards annually a medal called the ‘Wollaston medal,’ and the balance of the interest. On the same day he gave to the Astronomical Society, of which he had just been elected member, a telescope by Peter Dollond [q. v.] On 11 Dec. 1828 Wollaston transferred 2,000l. consols to the Royal Society to form the ‘Donation Fund,’ the interest to be applied to the promotion of experimental research. The fund has since been largely increased (Record of the Royal Society, 1897, pp. 117, 121).

[Besides the sources quoted, Charterhouse School Register (kindly consulted by E. Trevor Hardman, esq.); Venn's Biographical History of Gonville and Caius College, 1898, ii. 106; Munk's Coll. of Phys.; Royal Society's Catalogue; Wollaston's own papers; Weld's Hist. of the Royal Society; Barrow's Sketches of the Royal Society, 1849, contains memoir, pp. 54–71, 94, 194–5; Thomas Thomson's Hist. of the Royal Society; Memoir by Thomas Thomson, Proc. Phil. Soc. Glasgow, iii. 135; Thomson's Hist. of Chemistry, 1831, ii. 216–17, 237, 247, 292, 297; A. and C. R. Aikin's Dict. of Chemistry, 1807, vol. ii., and Tilloch's Philosophical Magazine, vi. 3 (on the preparation of platinum); Reminiscences of a Friend (Rev. Henry Hasted, F.R.S.), printed privately, contains interesting details; Chaney's Weights and Measures, 1897, passim; Parl. Papers, 1814 iii. 131, 1819 xi. 307, 1820 vii. 473, 1821 iv. 289; Peacock's Life of Thomas Young, and edition of Young's Miscellaneous Works, passim; Obituary in Monthly Notices of the Astronomical Society, i. 102; Paris's Life of Sir H. Davy, 1831, pp. 4, 76, 115, 369 passim; John Davy's Memoirs of Sir H. Davy, 1836, i. 258, ii. 160, 165, 376 passim (E. Davy states that the character of Eubathes in the 4th dialogue of H. Davy's Consolations in Travel has a striking resemblance to that of Wollaston); Thorpe's Life of Sir H. Davy, 1896; William Henry's Elements of Chemistry, 1829, preface to 11th edit.; Proc. of the Geol. Soc. i. 110, 113, 270; C. Chevalier's Notice sur l'usage des … chambres claires, 1833, passim; A. Laussedat in Annales du Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers, 1895 [2], viii. 253; English Cyclopædia, art. on ‘Platinum;’ Babbage's Essay on the Decline of Science in England, 1830, 8vo, p. 203; W. C. Henry's Life of Dalton, 1854, pp. 94–6, 110; Memoir in G. Wilson's Religio Chemici; Faraday's Life and Letters, ed. H. Bence Jones, 1870, i. 299, 338–53; Claude Louis Berthollet in Mémoires de la Société d'Arcueil, 1809, ii. 470; Manuscript Archives of the Royal Society; Record of the Royal Society, p. 182, passim; François Arago's Œuvres, 1854, passim; C. Chabrié, Sur la Cystine, Annales des Maladies des Voies Génito-urinaires, 1895; Kopp's Gesch. der Chemie, passim; Roscoe and Schorlemmer's Treatise on Chemistry, 2nd edit. ii. 757; Hermann's Textbook of Physiology, transl. A. Gamgee, 1875, p. 260; Grande Encyclopédie, art. on Académies, p. 205; Brande's Manual of Chemistry, 1848, p. cii, gives personal details; private information from Drewry Ottley Wollaston, esq., of Ipswich, who kindly lent fifty-seven manuscript letters written by Wollaston to Rev. H. Hasted; from George Hyde Wollaston, esq., of Wotton-under-Edge, from Alfred B. Wollaston, esq., of St. Leonard's, and from Rev. A. W. Hutton of Easthope, Shropshire.]

P. J. H.

C. H. L.