seamus dubhghaill

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


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Birth of Physicist Ernest Thomas Sinton Walton

ernest-waltonErnest Thomas Sinton Walton, Irish physicist, is born in Abbeyside, Dungarvan, County Waterford on October 6, 1903. He is the corecipient, with Sir John Douglas Cockcroft of England, of the 1951 Nobel Prize in Physics for the development of the first nuclear particle accelerator, known as the Cockcroft-Walton generator.

Walton is the son of a Methodist minister, Rev John Walton (1874–1936), and Anna Sinton (1874–1906). In those days a general clergyman’s family moves once every three years, and this practice carries him and his family, while he is a small child, to Rathkeale, County Limerick, where his mother dies, and to County Monaghan. He attends day schools in counties Down and Tyrone, and at Wesley College in Dublin before becoming a boarder at Methodist College Belfast in 1915, where he excels in science and mathematics. He obtains degrees in mathematics and experimental science from Trinity College Dublin in 1926.

Walton goes to Trinity College, Cambridge in 1927 where he works with Cockcroft in the Cavendish Laboratory under Ernest Rutherford until 1934. In 1928 he attempts two methods of high-energy particle acceleration. Both fail, mainly because the available power sources could not generate the necessary energies, but his methods are later developed and used in the betatron and the linear particle accelerator. In 1929 Cockcroft and Walton devise an accelerator that generates large numbers of particles at lower energies. With this device in 1932 they disintegrate lithium nuclei with protons, the first artificial nuclear reaction not utilizing radioactive substances and so becomes the first person in history to split the atom.

After gaining his Ph.D. at Cambridge, Walton returns to Trinity College, Dublin, in 1934, where he remains as a fellow for the next 40 years and a fellow emeritus thereafter. He is Erasmus Smith Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy from 1946 to 1974 and chairman of the School of Cosmic Physics at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies after 1952.

Although he retires from Trinity College Dublin in 1974, he retains his association with the Physics Department at Trinity up to his final illness. His is a familiar face in the tea-room. Shortly before his death he marks his lifelong devotion to Trinity by presenting his Nobel medal and citation to the college. Ernest Walton dies at the age of 91 in Belfast on June 25, 1995. He is buried in Deans Grange Cemetery in Dublin.

(Pictured: Ernest T.S. Walton, 1951, by Nobel foundation)

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Birth of Henry Dixon, Biologist & Professor

Generated by IIPImageHenry Horatio Dixon, plant biologist and professor at Trinity College, Dublin, is born in Dublin on May 19, 1869. Along with John Joly, he puts forward the cohesion-tension theory of water and mineral movement in plants.

Dixon is the youngest of the seven sons of George Dixon, a soap manufacturer, and Rebecca (née Yeates) Dixon. He is educated at Rathmines School and Trinity College, Dublin. In 1894, after studying in Bonn, Germany, he is appointed assistant and later full Professor of Botany at Trinity. In 1906 he becomes Director of the Botanic gardens and in 1910 of the Herbarium also. He has a close working relationship with physicist John Joly and together they develop the cohesion theory of the ascent of sap.

Dixon’s early research includes work on the cytology of chromosomes and first mitosis in certain plants. Familiarity with work on transpiration and on the tensile strength of columns of sulfuric acid and water leads Dixon and Joly to experiment on transpiration. “On the Ascent of Sap” (1894) presents the hypothesis that the sap or water in the vessels of a woody plant ascends by virtue of its power of resisting tensile stress and its capacity to remain cohesive under the stress of great differences of pressure. Dixon and Joly further demonstrate that water is transported through passive vessels and not living cells.

Dixon writes Transpiration and the Ascent of Sap in Plants (1914), which brings various theories and experimental works together in a coherent argument. He also writes a textbook, Practical Plant Biology (1922).

In 1907 Dixon marries Dorothea Mary, daughter of Sir John H. Franks, with whom he raises three sons. He is the father of biochemist Hal Dixon and grandfather of Adrian Dixon and Joly Dixon.

In 1908 Dixon is elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. In 1916 he is awarded the Boyle Medal of the Royal Dublin Society. He delivers the society’s Croonian Lecture in 1937.

Henry Dixon dies in Dublin on December 20, 1953.

(Pictured: Henry Horatio Dixon, bromide print by Walter Stoneman, 1922, National Portrait Gallery, London)


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Birth of Sir Hans Sloane, Physician & Naturalist

Generated by IIPImageSir Hans Sloane, Irish physician and naturalist whose collection of books, manuscripts, and curiosities form the basis for the British Museum in London, is born on April 16, 1660 in Killyleagh, County Down in what is now Northern Ireland.

As a child Sloane possesses a strong curiosity of nature, and he develops a particular interest in plants. After studying medicine in London, he travels in France, taking an M.D. degree at the University of Orange in 1683. In 1685 he returns to London and is elected a fellow of the Royal Society. He proceeds to practice medicine as an assistant to British physician Thomas Sydenham. He is made a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in 1687. That same year he accepts an opportunity to visit Jamaica, traveling as personal physician to the Christopher Monck, 2nd Duke of Albermarle, who had been appointed to govern the island.

The journey to Jamaica provides Sloane with the chance to pursue his interest in the natural sciences. During the 15 months of his travels, he visits multiple islands in the West Indies, including Saint Kitts, Nevis, and Barbados. He ultimately collects specimens of about 800 plants. He also records information on and collects specimens of various fish, mollusks, and insects, and he observes the local peoples and contemplates the natural phenomena of the area. His observations and the specimens he collects during the voyage lay the foundation for his later contributions to botany and zoology and for his role in the formation of the British Museum. He returns to England in 1689, his trip having been cut short by Monck’s death. His collection of plants from the West Indies is one of the first from that region to reach England.

Sloane’s trip to Jamaica also leads to his invention of a milk chocolate beverage. While on the island, he encounters a local drink made from a cacao plant. The beverage apparently makes him nauseous. To avoid this, he decides to mix the cacao material with milk. He finds this concoction to be not only more tolerable but also tasty and healthy. Shortly after his return to England, his milk-based concoction is sold by apothecaries as a medicinal product. His recipe later forms the basis for a milk chocolate product manufactured by Cadbury.

In 1696 Sloane publishes in Latin an elaborate catalogue, Catalogus Plantarum Quae in Insula Jamaica, on the plants he collected in Jamaica. He later publishes Natural History of Jamaica (2 Vol., 1707 and 1725), a comprehensive account of his studies of the natural phenomena of the island country.

Sloane also makes important contributions to medicine. He is physician to Queen Anne, King George I, and King George II. He is created a baronet in 1716, becoming the first medical practitioner to receive a hereditary title. He is relatively progressive as a physician, and, while serving George I, he adopts the practice of inoculation against smallpox for members of the royal family. In 1719 he is elected president of the Royal College of Physicians, a post he serves until 1735. In 1727 he becomes president of the Royal Society, succeeding physicist and mathematician Sir Isaac Newton. He holds the position until 1741. He earns a reputation as a specialist in eye diseases, and he eventually publishes Account of a Medicine for Soreness, Weakness and Other Distempers of the Eyes (1745).

Sloane is also known as an avid collector, and he benefits greatly from the acquisition of the cabinets of other collectors, including amateur scientist William Charleton and English apothecary and botanist James Petiver. When he retires from active work in 1741, his library and cabinet of curiosities has grown to be of unique value, and on his death he bequeaths his collection to the nation, on condition that parliament pay his executors £20,000. The bequest is accepted and goes to form the collection opened to the public as the British Museum in 1759.

Sloane has no son that survives beyond infancy, and the baronetcy becomes extinct upon his death in London on January 11, 1753.

(From: Encyclopaedia Britannica, http://www.britannica.com/biography/Sir-Hans-Sloane-Baronet/)


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Death of Robert John Kane, Chemist & Educator

robert-john-kaneSir Robert John Kane, chemist and educator, dies at the age of 80 in Dublin on February 16, 1890. In a distinguished career, he founds the Dublin Journal of Medical  & Chemical Science, is Vice-Chancellor of Royal University of Ireland and is director of the Museum of Irish Industry.

Kane is born at 48 Henry Street, Dublin on September 24, 1809 to John and Eleanor Kean (née Troy). His father is involved in the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and flees for a time to France where he studies chemistry. Back in Dublin, Kean (now Kane) founds the Kane Company and manufactures sulfuric acid.

Kane studies chemistry at his father’s factory and attends lectures at the Royal Dublin Society as a teenager. He publishes his first paper in 1828, Observations on the existence of chlorine in the native peroxide of manganese, in the London Quarterly Journal of Science, Literature and Art. The following year, his description of the natural arsenide of manganese results in the compound being named Kaneite in his honour. He studies medicine at Trinity College, Dublin, graduating in 1834 while working in the Meath Hospital. He is appointed Professor of Chemistry at the Apothecaries’ Hall, Dublin in 1831, which earns him the moniker of the “boy professor.” In the following year he participates in the founding of the Dublin Journal of Medical & Chemical Science.

On the strength of his book Elements of Practical Pharmacy, Kane is elected to the Royal Irish Academy in 1832. He studies acids, shows that hydrogen is electropositive, and proposes the existence of the ethyl radical. In 1836 he travels to Giessen in Germany to study organic chemistry with Justus von Liebig. In 1843 he is awarded the Royal Irish Academy’s Cunningham Medal for his work on the nature and constitution of compounds of ammonia.

Kane publishes a three-volume Elements of Chemistry in 1841–1844, and a detailed report on the Industrial Resources of Ireland. This includes the first assessment of the water power potential of the River Shannon, which is not realised until the 1920s at Ardnacrusha.

Kane becomes a political adviser on scientific and industrial matters. He serves on several commissions to enquire into the Great Irish Famine, along with Professors Lindley and Taylor, all more or less ineffective. His political and administrative work means that his contribution to chemistry ceases after about 1844.

Kane’s work on Irish industry leads to his being appointed director of the Museum of Irish Industry in Dublin in 1845. The Museum is a successor to the Museum of Economic Geology, and is housed at 51 St. Stephen’s Green.

Also in 1845 Kane becomes the first President of Queen’s College, Cork (now University College Cork). He does not spend a lot of time in Cork as he has work in Dublin, and his wife lives there. The science building on the campus is named in his honour. He is knighted in 1846.

In 1873 Kane takes up the post of National Commissioner for Education. He is elected president of the Royal Irish Academy in 1877, holding the role until 1882. In 1880 he is appointed the first chancellor of the newly created Royal University of Ireland. After a motion to admit women to the University, put forward by Prof. Samuel Haughton at Academic Council in Trinity College Dublin, March 10, 1880, Kane is appointed to a committee of ten men to look into the matter. He is opposed to the admission of women, and nothing is reported from the committee in the Council minutes for the next ten years.


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Birth of Matilda Cullen Knowles, Pioneer in Irish Lichenology

matilda-cullen-knowlesMatilda Cullen Knowles, considered the founder of modern studies of Irish lichens following her work in the early twentieth century on the multi-disciplinary Clare Island Survey, is born on January 31, 1864 in Cullybackey near Ballymena, County Antrim, Northern Ireland. Her work is said to have “formed an important baseline contribution to the cryptogamic botany of Ireland and western oceanic Europe.”

Knowles’ early interest in botany is encouraged by her father, William James Knowles, himself an amateur scientist who takes Matilda and her sister to meetings of the Belfast Naturalists’ Field Club. This is where she first meets Robert Lloyd Praeger who continues to be a lifelong influence. In 1895 she is introduced to the Derry botanist Mary Leebody and together they work on a supplement to Samuel Alexander Stewart‘s and Thomas Hughes Corey‘s 1888 book the Flora of the North-east of Ireland.

Knowles then volunteers to help with the crowdsourcing of material about the plants of County Tyrone. While completing this work Knowles publishes her own first paper about Tyrone’s flowering plants in 1897. She eventually sends in over 500 examples that are considered for inclusion in the Irish Topographical Botany, which Praeger publishes in 1901.

In 1902, after attending the Royal College of Science for Ireland for a year, Knowles is appointed a temporary assistant in the then Botanical Section of the National Science and Art Museum. She works closely with Professor Thomas Johnson to continue the development of the Herbarium collection. She also co-authors with him the Hand List of Irish Flowering Plants and Ferns (1910).

One of Knowles’ first works is The Maritime and Marine Lichens of Howth, which the Royal Dublin Society publishes in 1913. Knowles had gathered the knowledge and experience to do this while diligently assisting with a survey of Clare Island as suggested by Praeger. This novel survey involves not only Irish but also several European scientists including prominent UK lichenologist, Annie Lorrain Smith. This is claimed as the most extensive piece of field work at the time. As a result, Knowles is able to create a foundation for her later specialism in lichens.

Knowles publishes more than thirty scientific papers on a wide range of botanical subjects between 1897 and 1933. It is while studying the lichens of Howth that she discovers how lichens by the shore grow in distinct tidal zones that can be distinguished by their colour: black, orange and grey.

Her major work is The Lichens of Ireland which adds over 100 species of lichen to the Irish List and records the distribution of the eight hundred species identified in Ireland. She achieves this task with the collaboration of thirty other natural scientists. It is published in 1929 and includes twenty lichens that had previously not been identified as Irish.

Professor Thomas Johnson retires in 1923, allowing Knowles to take over curatorship, working with Margaret Buchanan. As she becomes older Knowles’ hearing begins to fail such that she has to rely on an ear trumpet. Despite her deafness she still attends meetings. She cares for and adds to the National Museum Herbarium collection although never gets the credit she deserves. In 1933 she plans to retire but pneumonia ends her life before she ends her career. Knowles dies in Dublin on April 27, 1933.

Knowles is honoured with a commemorative plaque by the Irish National Committee for Science and Engineering in October 2014 to mark the 150th anniversary of her birth.


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Birth of Louis Brennan, Irish Australian Inventor

louis-brennanLouis Brennan, Irish Australian mechanical engineer and inventor, is born in Castlebar, County Mayo on January 28, 1852.

Brennan moves to Melbourne, Australia in 1861 with his parents. He starts his career as a watchmaker and a few years later is articled to Alexander Kennedy Smith, a renowned civil and mechanical engineer of the period. He serves as a sergeant in the Victorian Engineers under the command of Captain John James Clark. He invents the idea of a steerable torpedo in 1874, from observing that if a thread is pulled on a reel at an angle with suitable leverage, the reel will move away from the thread side. He spends some years working out his invention, and receives a grant of £700 from the Victorian government towards his expenses. He patents the Brennan torpedo in 1877. The idea is trialed at Camden Fort near Crosshaven, County Cork.

Brennan goes to England in 1880 and brings his invention before the War Office. Sir Andrew Clarke alerts the authorities to the possibilities of the torpedo if used in the defence of harbours and channels, and the patent is eventually bought for a sum believed to be more than £100,000 (£ 9,331,100 in 2019). In 1887 he is appointed superintendent of the Brennan torpedo factory, and is consulting engineer from 1896 to 1907.

Brennan does much work on a gyro monorail locomotive which is kept upright by a gyrostat. In 1903 he patents a gyroscopically-balanced monorail system that he designs for military use. He successfully demonstrates the system on November 10, 1909, at Gillingham, England, but fears that the gyroscopes might fail prevents adoption of the system for widespread use.

From 1916 to 1919 Brennan serves in the munitions inventions department. From 1919 to 1926 he is engaged by the air ministry in aircraft research work at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough, and gives much time to the invention of a helicopter. The government spends a large sum of money on it, but in 1926 the air ministry gives up working on it, much to Brennan’s disappointment.

Brennan marries Anna Quinn on 10 September 10, 1892. The marriage results in a son and a daughter. He is created a Companion of the Order of the Bath in 1892, and is foundation member of the National Academy of Ireland in 1922.

In January 1932 Brennan is knocked down by a car at Montreux, Switzerland, and dies on January 17, 1932. He is buried at St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery, Kensal Green, London, in an unmarked plot numbered 2454 that is opposite the Chapel record office. On March 11, 2014, Taoiseach Enda Kenny unveils a new gravestone for Brennan at St. Mary’s in a ceremony honouring the inventor’s life and career.

Gillingham Library retains the archive of his papers.


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Death of Robert Boyle, Philosopher & Writer

robert-boyleRobert Boyle, Anglo-Irish natural philosopher, theological writer, chemist, physicist, inventor and a preeminent figure of 17th-century intellectual culture, dies on December 31, 1691 in London.

Boyle is born on January 25, 1627 at Lismore Castle, in County Waterford. At age eight, he 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 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.