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Thomas Thomson: Professor of Chemistry and University Reformer

  • J. B. Morrell

Thomas Thomson (177–1852) is primarily remembered as the author of the textbook A System of Chemistry which dominated the British field for about 30 years. In his chosen subject of chemistry his enthusiastic support of Daltonian chemical atomism and his zealous support of Prout's hypothesis have been recently recognized. Yet his activities were not as restricted as received opinion suggests. When Thomson assumed in 1818 the newly created Regius Chair of Chemistry at the University of Glasgow, the prospects for him as teacher and researcher were apparently encouraging. But he met difficulties in his attempts to elevate the status of the Regius Professors at Glasgow and in his concurrent endeavours to develop chemistry as an autonomous science. The ensuing controversy, first private and then public, spanned more than 20 rancorous years. Only one of Thomson's obituarists, however, even briefly mentions this debate; and recent writers on Thomson either ignore it completely or skim over it lightly. The main purpose of this paper is therefore to redress the balance of previous work on Thomson by outlining the chief features of his professorial period, paying particular attention to his style of teaching and attitude to his subject. For Thomson the development of his discipline was inseparable from the question of his status as a Regius Professor. Accordingly I also try to show that he played an important role in the movement for reform of the Scottish Universities and I discuss the structure of power at the University of Glasgow. Such analysis is necessary for understanding Thomson's appraisal of his situation as Regius Professor of Chemistry. In order to put his professorial period into the context of his earlier work I introduce the main body of the article with a short reconsideration of the form and significance of his career before 1817, when he moved to Glasgow.

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1 See Brock, W. H. and Knight, D. M., “The Atomic Debates”, Isis, lvi (1965), 525 (8); and Farrar, W. V., “Nineteenth-Century Speculations on the Complexity of the Chemical Elements”, British Journal for the History of Science, ii (19641965), 297323 (299300).

2 Anon., “Biographical Notice of the late Thomas Thomson”, The Glasgow Medical Journal, v (1857), 6980, 121153 (145). The other primary obituarists are: Thomson, R. D., “Memoir of the late Dr. Thomas Thomson”, Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal, liv (18521853), 8698; and Crum, W., “Sketch of the Life and Labours of Dr. Thomas Thomson”, Proceedings of the Philosophical Society of Glasgow, iii (1855), 250264.

3 Klickstein, H. S., “Thomas Thomson Pioneer Historian of Chemistry”, Chymia, i (1948), 3753; Partington, J. R., “Thomas Thomson, 1773–1852”, Annals of Science, vi (1949), 115126; Kent, A., “Thomas Thomson (1773–1852) Historian of Chemistry”, British Journal for the History of Science, ii (19641965), 5963.

4 Dalton's chemical atomic theory was used by Thomson inter alia for pedagogic and opportunist reasons.

5 Thackray, A. W., “The Origin of Dalton's Chemical Atomic Theory: Daltonian Doubts Resolved”, Isis, lvii (1966), 3555 (53); idem., “Documents relating to the origins of Dalton's chemical atomic theory”, Memoirs and Proceedings of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, cviii (19651966), 122 (18–19).

6 See Thomson, 's letter of 8 03 1807 to Dalton reproduced in Roscoe, H. E. and Harden, A., A New View of the Origin of Dalton's Atomic Theory (London, 1896), 141142.

7 Thomson, T., A System of Chemistry (3rd edn., Edinburgh, 1807), iii, 424628.

8 Thomson, T., “On oxalic acid”, Phil. Trans., xcviii (1808), 6395 (read 14 January 1808). Cf. Wollaston, W. H., “On Super-acid and Sub-acid Salts”, ibid., 96–102 (read 28 January 1808).

9 Greenaway, F., John Dalton and the Atom (London, 1966), 149150.

10 See Thomson, T., The History of Chemistry (London, 18301831), ii, 139141.

11 “Chemistry”, Supplement to the Third Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (Edinburgh, 1801), i, 210 f.; “Mineralogy”, ibid., ii, 193 f.; “Vegetable and Animal Substances and Dyeing”, ibid., ii, 529 f.

12 Thomson's winter class in 1803–1804 numbered about eighty. See letter of 6 January 1804 by William Sligo (University of Edinburgh Library, no. Dc. 4.101–3).

13 The fullest source: anon., “Biographical Notice of the late Thomas Thomson”, The Glasgow Medical Journal, v (1857), 123.

14 The Literary Journal, A Review of Literature, Science, Manners and Politics: first series, 1803–1805, 5 vols; second series, 1806, 2 vols.

15 The Prospectus (1802) sets out some characteristic Thomsonian attitudes and ideals: the attribution of due credit to British discoverers; the rapid communication of new scientific discoveries; the application of sciences to agriculture and manufactures; and the history of sciences. Thomson's aims were not completely realized until he founded his own periodical, Annals of Philosophy, in 1813.

16 Thomson resigned as a contributor in June 1803. See letter by William Sligo previously cited.

17 Thomson, T., A System of Chemistry (Edinburgh, 1802), i, Preface, 8.

18 See respectively: Crosland, M., The Society of Arcueil (London, 1967), 329–300; and Thomson's gloating letter to Jameson, Robert of 30 12 1816 (Pollok-Morris MSS.):

“I have been applied to by Berthollet, Vauquelin & Gay Lussac to send over the sheets to Paris as they are thrown off here so that they may have a translation out as soon as possible after the original… It will be of considerable importance to the continental chemists, as at present there is no work in existence which can give a correct idea of the present state of chemistry. Thenard's book is a poor thing & so badly arranged that you cannot tell where to look for anything.”

Riffault's preface to this translation of the fifth British edition shows that Thomson complied with the request. See: Système de Chimie … (Paris, 1818), i, Preface, 8.

19 The Glasgow Medical Journal, v (1857), 132. Thomson characteristically submitted a minority report in Papers … relating to Experiments made by Order of the Commissioners of Excise for Scotland, to ascertain the relative qualities of malt made from Barley and Scotch Bigg (1806), 109116.

20 Roberts, W. H., The Scottish Ale Brewer … (Edinburgh, 1837), 2930.

21 Thomson's letter of 20 April 1817 to Macvey Napier (British Museum, Add. MSS. 43, 612, f. 72); and Thomson's letter of 30 May 1817 to Robert Jameson (Pollok-Morris MSS.) which show that Thomson expected the introduction of his saccharometer by the English Excise Board and a reward of at least £20,000.

22 English Excise Board Minutes, 20 September 1820. Contrast Thomson's salary of £50 p.a. as Professor.

23 Thomson, T., op. cit. (10), i, 328.

24 Crum, W., op. cit. (2), 255.

25 The critic was Duncan, Andrew Jnr., The Edinburgh Review, iv (1804), 120151. Thomson replied with a thick pamphlet, Remarks on the Edinburgh Review of Dr. Thomson's System of Chemistry by the author of that Work (Edinburgh, 1804). The whole episode is ignored by Clive, J., Scotch Reviewers: The Edinburgh Review, 1802–15 (London, 1957).

26 Sir Robert Christison regarded him as “a follower of Thersites”: “the most glaring ingredient in his character … was an uncontrollable propensity to sneer—not behind-backs, but in presence of his subject”. See The Life of Sir R. Christison, Bart., edited by his Sons (Edinburgh and London, 18851886), i, 366367.

27 Thomson, T., “Biographical Account of Dr. Joseph Priestley”, Annals of Philosophy, i (1813), 8199.

28 Thomson, T., op. cit. (27), 97.

29 See: Bain, A., James Mill, a Biography (London, 1882), passsim.

30 I Queen's Square, Westminster. See Thomson's letter of 27 June 1815 to Macvey Napier (British Museum Add. MSS. 34, 611, f. 236).

31 Mill, J. S., Autobiography (Oxford (World's Classics), 1952), 3940. Both Thomson and Mill were Scottish “lads o' pairts”, contemporaries at Edinburgh University, chief collaborators in The Literary Journal, contributors to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and vigorous scholar-popularizers distinguished for hard-working competence rather than innate brilliance.

32 See e.g.: Thomson, T., “Baking”, Supplement to the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (Edinburgh, 1824), ii, 3745, which contains an attack on the Corn Laws, and Thomson, T., Travels in Sweden, during the Autumn of 1812 (London, 1813), 114132, in which he daringly argues for the necessity of the Swedish revolution of 1809.

33 See: Glasgow Medical Journal, v (1857), 122 and 148–9; Thomson, T., op. cit. (10), ii, 17 and 198; Thomson's letter of 27 January 1837 to the Rev. John Lee, Principal of Edinburgh University (National Library of Scotland, MS. 3441, f. 226), which inter alia discusses the relations between Church, University, and the progress of science.

34 Glasgow Medical Journal, v (1857), 140. James Couper, Professor of Astronomy at Glasgow, was impressed by the unanimity of the election. On 5 September 1817 he wrote to Robert Jameson (Pollok-Morris MSS.):

“His character & reputation was completely victorious over every feeling of private friendship and attachment. I have never seen any election so harmonious—& in which everyone felt so much self complacency in giving his vote for a man of such acknowledged merit.”

35 Glasgow Medical Journal, v (1857), 141; and Bain, A., op. cit. (29), 167.

36 Thomson's letter of 9 September 1817 to his friend Robert Jameson (Pollok-Morris MSS.): “You have heard by this time that I have been unanimously elected to the lectureship of Chemistry in the University of Glasgow … I hesitated for some time whether I should become a candidate. But I was assured that it would immediately be made a Regius Professorship & this induced me to offer myself. Indeed I had no reason to look for a better situation, as except Edinr. it is the best, which the country affords.”

37 Thomson, R. D., op. cit. (2), 94.

38 See: Kent, A. (ed.), An Eighteenth-Century Lectureship in Chemistry (Glasgow, 1950).

39 See: Thomson, T., op. cit. (10), i, 303304 and 318327.

40 A useful short survey is: Kent, A., “The Place of Chemistry … in the Scottish Universities”, Proc. Chem. Soc., 04 1959, 109113.

41 Commissioners appointed to visit the Universities and Colleges of Scotland, Report relative to the University of Edinburgh (1830), 55 and 73. Hope had easily the highest income of any Scottish Professor in the 1820's, i.e. slightly above £2,200 p.a.

42 Report relative to the Universities and Colleges of St. Andrews (1830), 7 and 26; and Evidence … received by the Commissioners … for visiting the Universities of Scotland, iii (1837), 253.

43 Findlay, A., The Teaching of Chemistry in the Universities of Aberdeen (Aberdeen, 1935), 2, and 4348.

44 Report relative to the University and King's College of Aberdeen (1830), 14.

45 Findlay, A., op. cit. (43), 813.

46 Thomson attributed the success in science of Edinburgh University to its being the only Scottish University which was not a “close corporaticn”. See: Thomson's letter of 27 January 1837 to John Lee (National Library of Scotland, MS. 3441, f. 226).

47 Saunders, L. J., Scottish Democracy 1815–1840 (Edinburgh and London, 1950), 312.

48 The development of the Glasgow Medical School during Thomson's incumbency is described by: Duncan, A., Memorials of the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow, 1599–1850 (Glasgow, 1896), 162186; and Coutts, J., A History of the University of Glasgow (Glasgow, 1909), 512569.

49 Useful background is provided by Mackie, J. D., The University of Glasgow 1451–1951 (Glasgow, 1954), 243268.

50 See Document submitted to the Commission by Thomson on behalf of the Regius Professors, Evidence … received by the Commissioners … for visiting the Universities of Scotland, ii (1837), 205211 (206). Subsequently this work will be described as “Glasgow Evidence”.

51 Self-patronage by the professoriate was widely recognized and condemned. See, e.g. SirHamilton, W., “Patronage of Universities”, The Edinburgh Review, lix (1834), 196227 (221–226).

52 As an example, in 1818 the College agreed that all the medical professors should examine candidates in medicine; but it stipulated that the Regius Professors should examine gratuitously, while the College Professors of Anatomy and Medicine were each to receive four guineas per successful candidate. By 1826, when over thirty students graduated in medicine, the issue had become contentious, particularly as Burns, Professor of Surgery, had withdrawn in a huff, leaving the burden of examining to be shared between Thomson and Towers, Professor of Midwifery. See: Glasgow Evidence (1837), 209.

53 Ibid., 209.

54 Ibid., 537–539.

55 The non-medical elections were: Gibb, Hebrew, 1820; Sandford, Greek, 1821; Buchanan, Logic, 1827.

56 Glasgow Evidence (1837), 209210

57 Ibid., 205–211.

58 Thomson's letter of 18 March 1818 to Macvey Napier (British Museum, Add. MSS. 34, 612, f. 176).

59 Thomson's letter of 13 August 1818 to Dalton, reproduced in Roscoe, H. E. and Harden, A., op. cit. (6), 171172.

60 Glasgow Evidence (1837), 202203.

61 Thomson, T., An Attempt to Establish the First Principles of Chemistry by Experiment (London, 1825), i, 25.

61 Glasgow Evidence (1837), 34 and 541. The College, and not the Crown, contributed to the departmental expenses of the Regius Professors: clearly it was troubled by this drain on its revenues.

63 Ibid., 151.

64 Ibid., 151 and 203.

65 Thomson, T., “Reply to Berzelius' attack on his ‘First Principles of Chemistry’”, Phil. Mag., v (1829), 217223 (217).

66 Glasgow Evidence (1837), 203.

67 Ibid., 204. See also Thomson's letter of 8 December 1826 to Dalton (reproduced in Roscoe, H. E. and Harden, A., op. cit. (6), 183184) in which he refers to “the vortex of manufacture and business, which is here all powerful”. Some students migrated to Lancashire to develop the chemical industry there, as Thomas Andrews pointed out. See his Studium Generale (London, 1867), 88.

68 Glasgow Evidence (1837), 205.

69 Thomson was fully aware that his laboratory class was unparalleled at this time: see Thomson, T., “History and Present State of Chemical Science”, The Edinburgh Review, 1 (1829), 256276 (276).

70 Glasgow Report (1830), 77; and Thomson's letter of 25 February 1828 to Nutall (Torrey MSS., Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, U.S.A.).

71 Report of the Glasgow University Commissioners (1839), 71.

72 See Thomson's letter of 24 March 1830 to Macvey Napier (British Museum, Add. MSS. 34, 614, f. 313).

73 See: A Memorial respecting the Present State of the College of Glasgow, by the Regius Professors of Chemistry and Materia Medica (London, 1835), 22; Remarks on a Pamphlet, Entitled, “A Memorial… by the Regius Professors of Chemistry & Materia Medica” (Glasgow, 1835), 20 (this pamphlet was written by Duncan Macfarlan, Principal of Glasgow University); Kent, A., “The Shuttle Street Laboratories”, Glasgow University Gazette (1956), no. 25; and Murray, D., Memories of The Old College of Glasgow (Glasgow, 1927), 254255.

74 Glasgow University Report (1839), 7071.

75 See Thomson's letter of 25 January 1833 to Lord Brougham (Brougham MSS., University College Library, London).

76 Coutts, J., op. cit. (48), 536537.

77 See Mill's letter of 21 January 1834 and Thomson's letter of 24 January 1834 both addressed to Lord Brougham (Brougham MSS., University College Library, London).

78 Glasgow Evidence (1837), 34 and 149.

79 Glasgow University Report (1839), 70 and 215. Between 1832 and 1836 James Couper's average salary was £272 per annum.

80 Strang, J., Glasgow and Its Clubs (London and Glasgow, 1857), 452.

81 Strang, J., op. cit. (80), 461.

82 Thomson's will nominated him as one of nine executors.

83 op. cit. (73).

84 A Statement of the Proceedings of the University and King's College of Aberdeen respecting the Royal Grant… and the Bill, recently before Parliament… (Aberdeen, 1835), 32.

85 The House of Commons Journal (1835), 440.

86 Thomson's role in this episode is made clear in his letter of Wednesday 1 July 1835 to William Jackson Hooker (Royal Botanic Gardens Library, Kew, , Hooker Correspondence, English Letters, vi (18321835), no. 259):

“I had not an opportunity of seeing you before I left Glasgow to inform you that Dr Couper & myself had thought it better … to endeavour to cut the Gordian knot by getting an act of parliament to put all the professors on a footing—I went up to London for that purpose & Mr. Tennant went with me. I drew up a memorial stating our grievances which I got printed & which we have distributed among the members of the House of Commons … And Mr. Oswald is to bring in a bill to transfer the management of the funds of the College to a College Court & to equalize all the Professorships as far as powers & priveleges are concerned. Mr. Bannerman the Member for Aberdeen has brought in a bill to unite the two Universities of Aberdeen & to put their funds under the control of a rectorial court. It is to be read a second time on Monday & we wait to see the result of that bill before bringing in ours. If it pass as we think it will our bill merely putting in force the resolutions of the Royal Commissioners must pass also.

“I write you at present to make you aware of what we are doing. I could not write before because we are only now beginning to see our way clearly. You will of course take no notice of this letter, even if Dr Burns should question you. You must be aware that he is not with us. He had his eye fixed on the Anatomy chair & expects to get it by currying favour with the Principal & Faculty. He will be disappointed. But we must not trust him.

“The Principal, etc. have heard of our proceedings and have applied for a copy of my memorial & one has been sent to them …”

87 See Melbourne's reply to Aberdeen, Lord, reported in The Times (18 07 1835).

88 Report in The Times (21 07 1835); and Hansard (20 07 1835), 735737.

89 The House of Commons Journal (1835), 507.

90 Memorial (1835), 12; Remarks (1835), 79.

91 Memorial (1835), 37.

92 Ibid. 39.

93 Ibid., 38.

94 The Times (7 07 1836).

95 Remarks (1835), 1, 16, 18, 2425, 45.

96 Observations by the Principal and Professors of Glasgow College, on Schemes of Reform, Proposed for the University of Glasgow, in connexion with the Report of the Royal Commissioners of Visitation (Glasgow, 1836).

97 Idem., 6 (footnote).

98 Idem., 26.

99 See Parliamentary Papers, iv (1835), for full details of the Bill for the Regulation of the University of Glasgow.

100 Observations (1836), 29

101 Idem., 36.

102 Bill for appointing a Board of Royal Visitors for regulating the Universities of Scotland.

103 See editorial, The Times (2 04 1836).

104 Thomson's letter of 11 April 1836 to John Archibald Murray (National Library of Scotland, MS. 2904, f. 52).

105 See John Pringle Nicol's letter of 12 May 1836 to John Archibald Murray (National Library of Scotland, MS. 2904, f. 60).

106 See the list of petitions, received 28 June, against the Bill, in The Journal of the House of Lords, lxviii (1836), 922; and Thomson's letter of 10 July 1836 to Murray (National Library of Scotland, MS. 2904, f. 76).

107 See letters of Monteith and Bannerman to Murray (National Library of Scotland, MS. 2904, f. 86 and 93).

108 Hansard (2 08 1836), 756758. The Bill seemed likely to fail after the Lords' debate of 28 June: see Hansard (1836), 989998.

109 Knox, H. M., Two Hundred and Fifty Years of Scottish Education 1696–1946 (Edinburgh and London, 1953), 50.

110 This weakening of reforming resolve was deplored by Thomson in a letter of 19 March 1839 to John Lee (National Library of Scotland, MS. 3442, f. 217).

111 Coutts, J., op. cit. (48), 423.

112 See Thomson's letter of 27 January 1837 to John Lee (National Library of Scotland, MS. 3441, f. 226).

113 Glasgow University Report (1839), 71; and Thomson's letter of 22 December 1838 to John Lee (National Library of Scotland, MS. 3442, f. 202).

114 Liebig judged Thomson to be still the best middle-aged teacher of chemistry in Britain. See his letter of 23 November 1837 to Wohler, , Aus Justus Liebigs und Friedrich Wohlers Briefwechsel in den Jahren 1823–1873 (Brunswick, 1888), i, 113.

115 Dr. Jeffray, Professor of Anatomy since 1790, was so enfeebled by age, deafness, and loss of voice that he lectured by deputy—his son. Dr. Badham, Professor of Medicine since 1827, had suffered infirmity for many years and a substitute had lectured on the theory of medicine since 1832. The picture of Glasgow College as being composed of tottering men is confirmed by “A return … of the Names of the Professors in the University of Glasgow, whose Duties are at present performed by Assistants or Substitutes”, Parliamentary Papers, xxix (1840).

116 Thomson's letter of 12 November 1839 to Andrew Rutherfurd (National Library of Scotland, Rutherfurd Papers not catalogued).

117 Gilbert, J. H., J. Chem. Soc., xliii (1883), 238.

118 Thomson's letter to Rutherfurd cited in footnote 116.

119 Memorial in Action of Declarator, The Officers of State for Scotland against … the University and College of Glasgow (1857), 103.

120 The Memorial of the undersigned Regius Professors of the University of Glasgow. I have not succeeded in locating and reading a copy of this document.

121 Memorial for The Principal and Professors, constituting the Faculty of Glasgow College, to the Right Honourable Her Majesty's Principal Secretary of State for the Home Department (Glasgow, 1841).

122 Memorial in Action of Declarator … (1857), 131.

123 Public Record Office, HO/103/9, letters of 23 November and 13 December 1841, and 4 February 1842.

124 Memorial in Action of Declarator … (1857), 132.

125 See, for instance, Daubeny's lecture registers reproduced in Gunther, R. T., A History of The Daubeny Laboratory Magdalen College Oxford (London, 1904), 65135 (65–83).

126 The details and implications of Hope's apathy towards practical teaching will be given in my paper “Practical Chemistry in the University of Edinburgh, 1799–1843”, Ambix, xvi (1969) (in press).

127 Terrey, H., “Edward Turner, M.D., F.R.S. (1798–1837)”, Annals of Science, ii (1937), 137152 (147).

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