Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Woulfe, Peter

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WOULFE, PETER (1727?–1803), chemist and mineralogist, was probably of Irish origin. He first discovered native tin in Cornwall in 1766 (Fourcroy, Système des Connaissances Chimiques, vi. 9), was elected F.R.S. on 5 Feb. 1767, on the proposal of Henry Baker [q. v.], John Ellis, Daniel Charles Solander [q. v.], Matthew Maty, and John Bevis, and was admitted on 12 March 1767. On 18 Nov. of the same year he contributed a paper on ‘Experiments on the Distillation of Acids, Volatile Alkalies,’ &c. to the ‘Philosophical Transactions’ (1767, p. 517), in which he describes an apparatus for the passing of gases through liquids, which has since borne the name of ‘Woulfe's bottle.’ Woulfe's innovation consisted in the introduction of water into a form of condenser previously used, and already figured and described in Glauber's work on ‘Philosophical Furnaces’ (Glauber, Works, transl. by Packe, 1689, plate 1, pp. 2–3). But this simple invention formed ‘almost an era in chemical discovery’ (Aikin), no convenient method being known previously for obtaining concentrated solutions of soluble gases, or for purifying insoluble gases from soluble impurities. The apparatus was improved by the introduction of a ‘safety-tube’ by Jean Joseph Welter. Woulfe applied his apparatus to the production of hydrochloric ether by passing gaseous hydrochloric acid into alcohol. In 1768 the Royal Society awarded him the Copley medal. In 1771 Woulfe investigated the composition and preparation of ‘mosaic gold’ (stannic sulphide), and showed that on treating indigo, cochineal, and other colouring matters with strong nitric acid, a yellow dye (picric acid) may be obtained (Phil. Trans. 1771, pp. 114, 127). He was later nominated by the president and council ‘to prosecute discoveries in natural history, pursuant to the will of Henry Baker,’ and in 1776 (ib. p. 605) published an account of ‘Experiments made … to ascertain the nature of some mineral substances,’ in which he attempted to analyse hornsilver, but found that it contained not only ‘acid of salt,’ but also ‘acid of vitriol.’ The paper was published separately in 1777, translated into German, and published at Leipzig in 1778 (Gmelin, Gesch. der Chemie, iii. 679). It was followed by another paper on similar subjects in 1779 (Phil. Trans.)

Woulfe generally spent his winters in London, and his summers in Paris, and from 1784 most of his publications seem to have appeared in Rozier's ‘Journal de Physique’ (1784 xxv. 352, 1787 xxxi. 362, 1788 xxxii. 370, 374, 1789 xxxiv. 99). They are of less importance than those mentioned above. He also contributed to the English edition of Crell's ‘Chemical Journal’ (Gmelin). Woulfe was a firm believer in alchemy. He thought that his ‘new method of distillation bid fair to discover the mercurial and colouring earths of Beccher’ (Phil. Trans. 1767, p. 534); he searched long for the elixir, and ‘attributed his failure to want of due preparation by pious and charitable acts’ (Brande). He was altogether erratic, or, according to Scherer, mad at the end of his life; but Scherer only adduces as evidences of his madness his adherence to the doctrines of the prophet Richard Brothers [q. v.], and his strange alchemical ideas. He breakfasted at four in the morning, and guests gained admittance by a secret signal to his rooms, crowded with chemical apparatus, in Barnard's Inn (No. 2, second floor). His remedy for illness was a journey by mail-coach to Edinburgh and back; but in 1803 the remedy proved fatal. Like Henry Cavendish, he insisted on dying without medical care and alone. Charles Hatchett [q. v.], Woulfe's neighbour and friend, presented an athanor furnace formerly belonging to Woulfe to the Royal Institution.

[Besides the sources quoted and information from Professor James Dewar, F.R.S., the following authorities have been used: Record of the Royal Soc. p. 214; Archives of the Royal Soc.; Poggendorff's Biographisch-literarisches Handwörterbuch; A. N. Scherer's Allgemeines Journal für Chemie, v. 128; Thomson's Hist. of the Royal Soc.; Fourcroy's Système des Connaissances Chimiques, an ix. v. 283, vi. 9, passim; Brande's Manual of Chemistry, 1848, i. p. xvii; Gent. Mag. 1868, i. 187 (art. by John Timbs); Kopp's Gesch. der Chemie, passim; Gmelin's Gesch. der Chemie, iii. 623–626, passim; Aikin's Dict. of Chemistry, 1807, ii. 541; Chaptal's Chemistry, transl. Nicholson, 1860, i. 17; Glauber's Works, transl. Packe, 1689, plate 1, pp. 2–3; Priestley's Experiments [on] Natural Philosophy, 1786, iii. 155, mentions Woulfe as an acquaintance. Nicholson's Journal, 1803, iv. 6; Roscoe and Schorlemmer's Chemistry, vol. iii. pt. i. p. 342; Foster's Gray's Inn Admission Register gives the entry 1 Feb. 1771, ‘Peter Woulfe of West End, Middlesex, gent.’]

P. J. H.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.285
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

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64 ii 2 Woulfe, Peter: for a religious prophet named Brothers read the prophet Richard Brothers [q. v.])