seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Birth of Astronomer William Edward Wilson

William Edward Wilson, Irish astronomer, is born at Greenisland, County Antrim, on July 19, 1851. He is the only son of John and Frances Wilson of Daramona House, Streete, County Westmeath, and is privately educated.

Wilson becomes interested in astronomy and travels to Oran in 1870 to photograph the solar eclipse. In 1871 he acquires a reflecting telescope of 12 inches (30.5 cm) aperture and sets it up in a dome in the gardens of Daramona House. He uses it to experiment on the photography of the moon with wet plates and also begins to study solar radiation using thermopiles. In 1881, he replaces the original telescope with a Grubb reflector of 24 inches (61 cm) aperture and a new dome and mounting that has an electrically controlled clock drive. The new telescope is mounted in a two-story tower attached to the house with an attached physical laboratory, darkroom and machine shop.

Wilson’s main research effort, in partnership with P.L. Gray, is to determine the temperature of the sun using a “differential radio-micrometer” of the sort developed by C.V. Boys in 1889, which combines a bolometer and galvanometer into one instrument. The result of their measurements is an effective temperature of about 8000 °C for the sun which, after correction to deal with absorption in the earth’s atmosphere, give a value of 6590 °C, compared to the modern value of 6075 °C.

Some of Wilson’s other astronomical projects include observations on the transit of Venus, determination of stellar motion, observations of sunspots and a trip to Spain to photograph a solar eclipse. He takes a great many excellent photographs of celestial bodies such as nebulae. His astronomical findings are published in a series of memoirs such as Experimental Observations on the Effective Temperature of the Sun.

Wilson is elected a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1875 and a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1896. He receives an honorary doctorate (D.Sc.) from the University of Dublin in June 1901. He serves as High Sheriff of Westmeath for 1894.

Wilson dies on March 6, 1908 at Daramona at the relatively young age of 56, and is buried in the family plot in Steete churchyard. He had married Caroline Ada in 1886, the daughter of Capt. R.C. Granville, and they have a son and two daughters. His son donates his telescope to the University of London, where it is used for research and teaching, finally becoming a feature in Liverpool museum.


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Birth of Sir Joseph Larmor, Physicist & Mathematician

Sir Joseph Larmor FRS FRSE, Irish and British physicist and mathematician who makes breakthroughs in the understanding of electricity, dynamics, thermodynamics, and the electron theory of matter, is born in Magheragall, County Antrim on July 11, 1857. His most influential work is Aether and Matter, a theoretical physics book published in 1900.

Larmor is the son of Hugh Larmor, a Belfast shopkeeper and his wife, Anna Wright. The family moves to Belfast around 1860, and he is educated at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, and then studies mathematics and experimental science at Queen’s College, Belfast, where one of his teachers is John Purser. He obtains his BA in 1874 and MA in 1875. He subsequently studies at St. John’s College, Cambridge where in 1880 he is Senior Wrangler and Smith’s Prizeman, and obtains his MA in 1883. After teaching physics for a few years at Queen’s College, Galway, he accepts a lectureship in mathematics at Cambridge in 1885. In 1892 he is elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London, and he serves as one of the Secretaries of the society. He is made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1910.

In 1903 Larmor is appointed Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, a post he retains until his retirement in 1932. He never marries. He is knighted by King Edward VII in 1909.

Motivated by his strong opposition to Home Rule for Ireland, in February 1911 Larmor runs for and is elected as Member of Parliament for Cambridge University (UK Parliament constituency) with the Conservative Party. He remains in parliament until the 1922 general election, at which point the Irish question has been settled. Upon his retirement from Cambridge in 1932 he moves back to County Down in Northern Ireland.

Larmor receives the honorary Doctor of Laws (LLD) from the University of Glasgow in June 1901. He is awarded the Poncelet Prize for 1918 by the French Academy of Sciences. He is a Plenary Speaker in 1920 at the International Congress of Mathematicians (ICM) at Strasbourg and an Invited Speaker at the ICM in 1924 in Toronto and at the ICM in 1928 in Bologna.

Larmor dies in Holywood, County Down, Northern Ireland on May 19, 1942.


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Birth of Astronomer William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse

William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse, Anglo-Irish astronomer, naturalist, and engineer, is born in York, England on June 17, 1800. He is President of the Royal Society (UK), the most important association of naturalists in the world in the nineteenth century. He builds several giant telescopes. His 72-inch telescope, built in 1845 and colloquially known as the “Leviathan of Parsonstown,” is the world’s largest telescope, in terms of aperture size, until the early 20th century. From April 1807 until February 1841, he is styled as Baron Oxmantown.

Parsons is the son of Lawrence Parsons, 2nd Earl of Rosse, and Alice Lloyd. He is educated at Trinity College, Dublin and Magdalen College, Oxford, graduating with first-class honours in mathematics in 1822. He inherits an earldom and a large estate in King’s County (now County Offaly) in Ireland when his father dies in February 1841.

Parsons marries Mary Field, daughter of John Wilmer Field, on April 14, 1836. They have thirteen children, of which four sons survive to adulthood: Lawrence, 4th Earl of Rosse, Rev. Randal Parsons, the Hon. Richard Clere Parsons, and the Hon. Sir Charles Algernon Parsons.

In addition to his astronomical interests, Parsons serves as a Member of Parliament (MP) for King’s County from 1821 to 1834, president of the British Science Association in 1843–1844, an Irish representative peer after 1845, president of the Royal Society (1848–1854), and chancellor of Trinity College, Dublin (1862–1867).

During the 1840s, Parsons has the Leviathan of Parsonstown built, a 72-inch telescope at Birr Castle, Parsonstown, County Offaly. He has to invent many of the techniques he uses for constructing the Leviathan, both because its size is without precedent and because earlier telescope builders had guarded their secrets or had not published their methods. Details of the metal, casting, grinding and polishing of the 3-ton ‘speculum’ are presented in 1844 at the Belfast Natural History Society. His telescope is considered a marvelous technical and architectural achievement, and images of it are circulated widely within the British commonwealth. Building of the Leviathan begins in 1842 and it is first used in 1845, with regular use waiting another two years due to the Great Famine. Using this telescope he sees and catalogues a large number of nebulae, including a number that would later be recognised as galaxies.

Parsons performs astronomical studies and discovers the spiral nature of some nebulas, today known to be spiral galaxies. His telescope Leviathan is the first to reveal the spiral structure of M51, a galaxy nicknamed later as the “Whirlpool Galaxy,” and his drawings of it closely resemble modern photographs.

Parsons dies at the age of 67 on October 31, 1867 at Monkstown, County Dublin.

Parsons’s son publishes his father’s findings, including the discovery of 226 New General Catalogue of Nebulae and Clusters of Stars (NGC) objects in the publication Observations of Nebulae and Clusters of Stars Made With the Six-foot and Three-foot Reflectors at Birr Castle From the Year 1848 up to the Year 1878, Scientific Transactions of the Royal Dublin Society Vol. II, 1878.


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Birth of Richard Lovell Edgeworth, Politician, Writer & Inventor

Richard Lovell Edgeworth, Anglo-Irish politician, writer and inventor, is born on May 31, 1744 in Pierrepont Street, Bath, Somerset, England.

Edgeworth is the son of Richard Edgeworth senior, and great-grandson of Sir Salathiel Lovell through his mother, Jane Lovell, granddaughter of Sir Salathiel. The Edgeworth family comes to Ireland in the 1580s. He is descended from Francis Edgeworth, appointed joint Clerk of the Crown and Hanaper in 1606, who inherits a fortune from his brother Edward Edgeworth, Bishop of Down and Connor.

A Trinity College, Dublin and Corpus Christi College, Oxford alumnus, Edgeworth is credited for creating, among other inventions, a machine to measure the size of a plot of land. He also makes strides in developing educational methods. He anticipates the caterpillar track with an invention that he plays around with for forty years but never successfully develops. He describes it as a “cart that carries its own road.”

Edgeworth is married four times, including both Honora Sneyd and Frances Beaufort, older sister of Francis Beaufort of the Royal Navy. He is the father of 22 children by his four wives. Beaufort and he install a semaphore line for Ireland. He is a member of the Lunar Society of Birmingham. The Lunar Society evolves through various degrees of organization over a period of years, but is only ever an informal group. No constitution, minutes, publications or membership lists survive from any period, and evidence of its existence and activities is found only in the correspondence and notes of those associated with it. Dates given for the society range from sometime before 1760 to it still operating as late as 1813. Fourteen individuals have been identified as having verifiably attended Lunar Society meetings regularly over a long period during its most productive time: these are Matthew Boulton, Erasmus Darwin, Thomas Day, Richard Lovell Edgeworth, Samuel Galton, Jr., James Keir, Joseph Priestley, William Small, Jonathan Stokes, James Watt, Josiah Wedgwood, John Whitehurst and William Withering.

Edgeworth and his family live in Ireland at his estate at Edgeworthstown, County Longford, where he reclaims bogs and improves roads. He sits in Grattan’s Parliament for St. Johnstown (County Longford) from 1798 until the Act of Union 1801, and advocates Catholic Emancipation and parliamentary reform. He is a founder-member of the Royal Irish Academy.

Edgeworth dies in Edgeworthstown on June 13, 1817.

(Pictured: “Portrait of Richard Lovell Edgeworth (1744-1817)” oil on canvas by Hugh Douglas Hamilton)


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Birth of Thomas Romney Robinson, Astronomer & Physicist

Reverend John Thomas Romney Robinson, 19th-century astronomer and physicist usually referred to as Thomas Romney Robinson, was born at St. Anne’s in Dublin on April 23, 1792. He is the longtime director of the Armagh Observatory, one of the chief astronomical observatories in the United Kingdom at the time. He is remembered as the inventor in 1846 of the Robinson 4-cup anemometer, a device for measuring the speed of the wind.

Robinson is the son of the English portrait painter Thomas Robinson (d.1810) and his wife, Ruth Buck (d.1826). He is educated at Belfast Academy then studies Divinity at Trinity College Dublin, where he is elected a Scholar in 1808, graduating BA in 1810 and obtaining a fellowship in 1814, at the age of 22. He is for some years a deputy professor of natural philosophy (physics) at Trinity.

In 1823, at the age of 30, Robinson gains the appointment of astronomer at the Armagh Observatory. From this point on he always resides at the Armagh Observatory, engaged in researches connected with astronomy and physics, until his death in 1882. Having also been ordained as an Anglican priest while at Trinity, he obtains the church livings of the Anglican Church at Enniskillen and at Carrickmacross in 1824.

During the 1840s and 1850s Robinson is a frequent visitor to the world’s most powerful telescope of that era, the so-called Leviathan of Parsonstown telescope, which had been built by Robinson’s friend and colleague William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse. He is active with Parsons in interpreting the higher-resolution views of the night sky produced by Parsons’ telescope, particularly with regard to the galaxies and nebulae and he publishes leading-edge research reports on the question.

Back at his own observatory in Armagh, Robinson compiles a large catalogue of stars and writes many related reports. In 1862 he is awarded a Royal Medal “for the Armagh catalogue of 5345 stars, deduced from observations made at the Armagh Observatory, from the years 1820 up to 1854; for his papers on the construction of astronomical instruments in the memoirs of the Astronomical Society, and his paper on electromagnets in the Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy.”

Robinson is president of the Royal Irish Academy from 1851 to 1856, and is a long-time active organiser in the British Association for the Advancement of Science. He is a friend of Charles Babbage, who says was “indebted” for having reminded him about the first time he came up with the idea of the calculating machine.

Robinson marries twice, first to Eliza Isabelle Rambaut (d.1839) and secondly to Lucy Jane Edgeworth (1806–1897), the lifelong disabled daughter of Richard Lovell Edgeworth. His daughter marries the physicist George Gabriel Stokes. Stokes frequently visits Robinson in Armagh in Robinson’s later years.

Robinson dies in Armagh, County Armagh at the age of 89 on February 28, 1882.

The crater Robinson on the Moon is named in his honour.


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Birth of Robert Boyle, Philosopher, Writer & Chemist

Robert Boyle, Anglo-Irish natural philosopher, theological writer, chemist, physicist, inventor and a preeminent figure of 17th-century intellectual culture, is born on January 25, 1627 at Lismore Castle, in County Waterford.

At age eight, Boyle begins his formal education at Eton College, where his studious nature quickly becomes apparent. In 1639 he and his brother Francis embark on a grand tour of the continent together with their tutor Isaac Marcombes. In 1642, owing to the Irish rebellion, Francis returns home while Robert remains with his tutor in Geneva and pursues further studies.

Boyle returns to England in 1644, where he takes up residence at his hereditary estate of Stalbridge in Dorset. There he begins a literary career writing ethical and devotional tracts, some of which employ stylistic and rhetorical models drawn from French popular literature, especially romance writings. In 1649 he begins investigating nature via scientific experimentation. From 1647 until the mid-1650s, he remains in close contact with a group of natural philosophers and social reformers gathered around the intelligencer Samuel Hartlib. This group, the Hartlib Circle, includes several chemists who heighten his interest in experimental chemistry.

Boyle spends much of 1652–1654 in Ireland overseeing his hereditary lands and performing some anatomic dissections. In 1654 he is invited to Oxford, and he takes up residence at the university until 1668. In Oxford he is exposed to the latest developments in natural philosophy and becomes associated with a group of notable natural philosophers and physicians, including John Wilkins, Christopher Wren, and John Locke. These individuals, together with a few others, form the “Experimental Philosophy Club.” Much of Boyle’s best known work dates from this period.

In 1659 Boyle and Robert Hooke, the clever inventor and subsequent curator of experiments for the Royal Society, complete the construction of their famous air pump and use it to study pneumatics. Their resultant discoveries regarding air pressure and the vacuum appear in Boyle’s first scientific publication, New Experiments Physico-Mechanicall, Touching the Spring of the Air and Its Effects (1660). Boyle and Hooke discover several physical characteristics of air, including its role in combustion, respiration, and the transmission of sound. One of their findings, published in 1662, later becomes known as “Boyle’s law.” This law expresses the inverse relationship that exists between the pressure and volume of a gas, and it is determined by measuring the volume occupied by a constant quantity of air when compressed by differing weights of mercury.

Among Boyle’s most influential writings are The Sceptical Chymist (1661), which assails the then-current Aristotelian and especially Paracelsian notions about the composition of matter and methods of chemical analysis, and the Origine of Formes and Qualities (1666), which uses chemical phenomena to support the corpuscularian hypothesis. He argues so strongly for the need of applying the principles and methods of chemistry to the study of the natural world and to medicine that he later gains the appellation of the “father of chemistry.”

Boyle is a devout and pious Anglican who keenly champions his faith. He sponsors educational and missionary activities and writes a number of theological treatises. He is deeply concerned about the widespread perception that irreligion and atheism are on the rise, and he strives to demonstrate ways in which science and religion are mutually supportive. For Boyle, studying nature as a product of God’s handiwork is an inherently religious duty. He argues that this method of study would, in return, illuminate God’s omnipresence and goodness, thereby enhancing a scientist’s understanding of the divine. The Christian Virtuoso (1690) summarizes these views and may be seen as a manifesto of his own life as the model of a Christian scientist.

In 1668 Boyle leaves Oxford and takes up residence with his sister Katherine Jones, Vicountess Ranelagh, in her house on Pall Mall in London. There he sets up an active laboratory, employs assistants, receives visitors, and publishes at least one book nearly every year. Living in London also provides him the opportunity to participate actively in the Royal Society.

Boyle is a genial man who achieves both national and international renown during his lifetime. He is offered the presidency of the Royal Society and the episcopacy but declines both. Throughout his adult life, he is sickly, suffering from weak eyes and hands, recurring illnesses, and one or more strokes. He dies in London at age 64 on December 31, 1691 after a short illness exacerbated by his grief over Katherine’s death a week earlier. He leaves his papers to the Royal Society and a bequest for establishing a series of lectures in defense of Christianity. These lectures, now known as the Boyle Lectures, continue to this day.


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Birth of Physicist Daniel Joseph Bradley

Daniel Joseph Bradley, physicist and Emeritus Professor of Optical Electronics at Trinity College, Dublin, is born on January 18, 1928 in Derry, County Londonderry, Northern Ireland.

Bradley is one of four surviving children of John and Margaret Bradley, Lecky Road, Derry. He leaves school to work as a telegraph boy but returns to education at St. Columb’s College. Following training as a teacher at St. Mary’s Training College, Belfast, he qualifies in 1947. While teaching in a primary school in Derry he studies for a degree in mathematics as an external student of the University of London, and is awarded a degree in 1953.

Moving to London where he teaches mathematics in a grammar school, Bradley decides to register for an evening course at Birkbeck College. His first choice is mathematics but as he already has a degree in the subject the admissions staff suggests that he study physics. In 1957, after four years of part-time study, he is awarded a Bachelor of Science degree in physics by Birkbeck, achieving the highest marks in his final exams in the University of London overall. He next joins Royal Holloway College as an assistant lecturer and simultaneously enrolls as a PhD student, working on Fabry–Pérot interferometer etalon-based high-resolution spectroscopy supervised by Samuel Tolansky. He receives a PhD in 1961.

Bradley is a pioneer of laser physics, and his work on the development of ultra-fast pulsed lasers adds a new and vitally important element to the capabilities of this new type of light source. In particular, working on dye lasers, he produces pulses of light as short as one picosecond (one picosecond is to a second as a second is to 31,800 years). His work paves the way for the completely new field of non-linear optical interactions. In addition, he inspires a new generation of laser scientists in Ireland and the UK, many of whom are international leaders in their fields.

Appointed to a lectureship in the physics department at Imperial College London, Bradley sets up a research programme in UV solar spectroscopy using rocket technology to reach high altitudes.

In 1963 Bradley begins work in laser physics but returns to Royal Holloway College as a reader one year later. In 1966 he is appointed professor and head of department at Queen’s University, Belfast. There he quickly establishes a space research group of international standing to do high-resolution solar spectroscopy. He attracts significant funding from a variety of agencies, allowing him to build his department into one of the world’s leading laser research centres, involving a total of 65 scientists. However, he leaves Belfast because of fears for his family’s safety as political violence escalates in the early 1970s amidst The Troubles.

Bradley returns to Imperial College London in 1973 to a chair in laser physics and heads a group in optical physics, laser physics and space optics. He is head of the Physics department from 1976 to 1980 but is frustrated by cutbacks and a rule governing the ratio of senior to junior positions, one consequence of which is that he is unable to maintain a long-established chair in optical design. He is also critical of the college administration’s handling of some departmental grant applications. He resigns in 1980 and moves to Dublin.

Among Bradley’s many lasting contributions to laser research in the UK is the setting up of one of the world’s leading research facilities for laser research, the Central Laser Facility at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL).

Arriving at Trinity College, Dublin, Bradley decides the time is ripe to move on from laser research and development into laser applications. In 1982, with Dr. John Kelly, a chemist, and Dr. David McConnell, a geneticist, he forms a team which wins funding for a project using laser techniques to explore the structure of organic molecules like DNA and proteins. Unfortunately, however, his work at Trinity is cut short by ill health and he retires in 1984. His research on semiconductor lasers is carried on and this work on developing widely tuneable lasers for optical communications systems continues.

A member of the Royal Irish Academy, Bradley is Fellow Emeritus of Trinity College Dublin, and holds fellowships of the Royal Society, The Optical Society of America and Institute of Physics. Through time the ravages of his illness restricts his travelling and eventually he is cared for in a residential home in Dublin, where he passes away on February 7, 2010.


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Birth of John Tyndall, Experimental Physicist

File source: //commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John_Tyndall_(scientist).jpgJohn Tyndall, Irish experimental physicist who, during his long residence in England, is an avid promoter of science in the Victorian era, is born on August 2, 1820 in Leighlinbridge, County Carlow.

Tyndall is born into a poor Protestant Irish family. After a thorough basic education he works as a surveyor in Ireland and England from 1839 to 1847. When his ambitions turns from engineering to science, he spends his savings on gaining a Ph.D. from the University of Marburg in Marburg, Hesse, Germany (1848–1850), but then struggles to find employment.

In 1853 Tyndall is appointed Professor of Natural Philosophy at the Royal Institution, London. There he becomes a friend of the much-admired physicist and chemist Michael Faraday, entertains and instructs fashionable audiences with brilliant lecture demonstrations rivaling the biologist Thomas Henry Huxley in his popular reputation and pursuing his research.

An outstanding experimenter, particularly in atmospheric physics, Tyndall examines the transmission of both radiant heat and light through various gases and vapours. He discovers that water vapor and carbon dioxide absorb much more radiant heat than the gases of the atmosphere and argues the consequent importance of those gases in moderating Earth’s climate, that is, in the natural greenhouse effect. He also studies the diffusion of light by large molecules and dust, known as the Tyndall effect, and he performs experiments demonstrating that the sky’s blue color results from the scattering of the Sun’s rays by molecules in the atmosphere.

Tyndall is passionate and sensitive, quick to feel personal slights and to defend underdogs. Physically tough, he is a daring mountaineer. His greatest fame comes from his activities as an advocate and interpreter of science. In collaboration with his scientific friends in the small, private X Club, he urges greater recognition of both the intellectual authority and practical benefits of science.

Tyndall is accused of materialism and atheism after his presidential address at the 1874 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, when he claims that cosmological theory belongs to science rather than theology and that matter has the power within itself to produce life. In the ensuing notoriety over this “Belfast Address,” his allusions to the limitations of science and to mysteries beyond human understanding are overlooked. He engages in a number of other controversies such as spontaneous generation, the efficacy of prayer and Home Rule for Ireland.

In his last years Tyndall often takes chloral hydrate to treat his insomnia. When bedridden and ailing, he dies from an accidental overdose of this drug on December 4, 1893 at the age of 73 and was buried at Haslemere, Surrey, England.

Tyndall is commemorated by a memorial, the Tyndalldenkmal, erected at an elevation of 7,680 ft. on the mountain slopes above the village of Belalp, where he had his holiday home, and in sight of the Aletsch Glacier, which he had studied.


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Birth of Robert McCarrison, Physician & Nutritionist

robert-mccarrisonMajor General Sir Robert McCarrison, physician and nutritionist in the Indian Medical Service, is born in Portadown, County Armagh in what is now Northern Ireland on March 15, 1878.

McCarrison is credited with being the first to experimentally demonstrate the effect of deficient dietaries upon animal tissues and organs. He also carries out human experiments aimed at identifying the cause of goitre, and includes himself as one of the experimental subjects. Much of his work is pioneering. His 1921 book Studies in Deficiency Disease is considered notable at the time, being published at a time when knowledge of vitamins and their role in nutrition is crystallizing.

McCarrison qualifies in Medicine at Queen’s College, Belfast in 1900. At age 23, he goes to India, where he spends 30 years on nutritional problems. His research in India on the cause of goitre wins widespread recognition and in 1913 he is promoted to do research. He attains the rank of major-general in the Indian Medical Service and founds the Nutritional Research Laboratories in Coonoor, where he remains until his retirement from the Indian Medical Service in 1935. After retiring, he returns to England and gives a series of three Cantor lectures on successive Mondays at the Royal Society of Arts, about the influence of diet on health. The first lecture focuses on the processes of nutrition; the second, on food essentials and their relationship to bodily structure and function; the third on disease prevention and physique improvement by attention to diet. The lectures are subsequently published in book form under the title Nutrition and Health, and at the time of the third edition in 1962, are still seen as relevant, with the advances of the preceding 25 years largely filling the details of the principles previously recognised by McCarrison.

McCarrison is made a Companion of the Order of the Indian Empire (CIE) in 1923, receives a knighthood in July 1933, and is appointed as Honourable Physician to the King in 1935.

After World War II, from 1945 to 1955, McCarrison serves as director of postgraduate medical education at the University of Oxford. He dies on May 18, 1960.


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Birth of James Thomson, Engineer & Physicist

james-thomsonJames Thomson, engineer and physicist whose reputation is substantial though overshadowed by that of his younger brother William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), is born in Belfast on February 16, 1822.

Thomson spends much of his youth in Glasgow. His father James is professor of mathematics at the University of Glasgow from 1832 onward. He attends Glasgow University from a young age and graduates in 1839 with high honors in his late teens. After graduation, he serves brief apprenticeships with practical engineers in several domains. He then gives a considerable amount of his time to theoretical and mathematical engineering studies, often in collaboration with his brother, during his twenties in Glasgow. In his late twenties he enters into private practice as a professional engineer with special expertise in water transport. In 1855, he is appointed professor of civil engineering at Queen’s University Belfast. He remains there until 1873, when he accepts the Regius professorship of Civil Engineering and Mechanics at the University of Glasgow in which he is successor to the influential William Rankine. He serves in this position until he resigns with failing eyesight in 1889.

In 1875 Thomson is elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. His proposers are his younger brother William, Peter Guthrie Tait, Alexander Crum Brown and John Hutton Balfour. He is elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in June 1877. He serves as President of the Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland from 1884 to 1886.

Thomson dies of cholera in Glasgow on May 8, 1892. He is buried on the northern slopes of the Glasgow Necropolis overlooking Glasgow Cathedral. One obituary describes Thomson as “a man of singular purity of mind and simplicity of character,” whose “gentle kindness and unfailing courtesy will be long remembered.”

Thomson is known for his work on the improvement of water wheels, water pumps and turbines. He is also known for his innovations in the analysis of regelation, i.e., the effect of pressure on the freezing point of water, and his studies in glaciology including glacial motion, where he extends the work of James David Forbes. He studies the experimental work of his colleague Thomas Andrews concerning the continuity of the liquid and gaseous states of matter, and strengthens understanding of it by applying his strong knowledge of thermodynamics. He derives a simplified form of the Clapeyron equation for the solid-liquid phase boundary. He proposes the term triple point to describe the conditions for which solid, liquid and vapour states are all in equilibrium.

Thomson also makes contributions in the realm of fluid dynamics of rivers. It is claimed that the term torque is introduced into English scientific literature by Thomson in 1884.