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The Scottish Nation

BLACK, a name, like Brown, White, &c., originally given, when surnames began to be first used, which in Scotland was not till about the beginning of the twelfth century, to persons in the middle or lower ranks who had no lands, from the colour of the visage or hair, or some peculiarity in the mental or personal character, and when the surname was not assumed from a trade or occupation, as Smith, Cook, Hunter, &c., or from the name of the father, with the addition of son, as Williamson, Johnson, Robertson, &c.

BLACK, JOSEPH, M.D., the founder of pneumatic chemistry, though not a native of Scotland, was or Scottish descent, and long resided in this country. He was born on the banks of the Garonne in France in 1728. His father, John Black, who was a native of Belfast, but of a Scottish family, had settled at Bordeaux, as a wine merchant, and lived in intimacy with the celebrated Montesquieu, who expressed his regret in strong terms on Mr. Black’s quitting Bordeaux, when he retired from business, as appears by several of his letters. His mother was a daughter of Mr. Robert Gordon of Hillhead, Aberdeenshire, and by her Dr. Black was nearly related to the wives of Dr. Adam Fergusson and Mr. James Russell, professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. In 1740, when he was twelve years old, he was sent to Belfast, to receive the rudiments of his education. In 1746 he entered as a student at the university of Glasgow, where Dr. Cullen the same year became professor of chemistry. He prosecuted his studies, particularly in physical science, with so much assiduity and success that he soon attracted the notice of this eminent man, who made him his assistant in all his chemical experiments. In 1751, having chosen the profession of medicine, to complete his medical studies he went to the university of Edinburgh, at that time rising into reputation as a medical school, where in 1754 he took the degree of M.D. His inaugural thesis on this occasion was entitled ‘De Acido a Cibis orto, et de Magnesia Alba,’ in which was contained an outline of his celebrated discovery of fixed air, or carbonic acid gas; which he now, for the first time, showed to be the true cause of the causticity of alkalies. This important discovery, with that of latent heat, for which we are also indebted to Dr. Black, laid the foundation of modern pneumatic chemistry, which has opened to the investigation of the philosopher a fourth kingdom of nature, viz. the gaseous kingdom. In 1755 he published his ‘Experiments on Magnesia, Quicklime, and other Alkaline Substances,’ which more fully developed his views on the subject he had touched upon in his thesis. His opinions, of course, gave rise to considerable discussion, particularly in Germany, but he was enabled satisfactorily to answer and refute all objections. In 1756, Dr. Cullen having removed to Edinburgh, Dr. Black was appointed his successor, as professor of anatomy and lecturer on chemistry, in the university of Glasgow. The former chair he soon exchanged for that of medicine for which he was better qualified. One of his pupils at Glasgow was Watt, the celebrated inventor of the improved steam-engine, who was led by Dr. Black’s views and theories respecting the nature of steam, and particularly on the subject of evaporation, to make those great improvements which have been of so much benefit to science. Between the years 1759 and 1763, Dr. Black matured those speculations on latent heat which had for some time engaged his attention. An observation of Fahrenheit’s recorded by Dr. Boerhaave, that water would become considerably colder than melting snow, without freezing, and would freeze in a moment if disturbed, and in the act of freezing emit many degrees of heat, seems to have suggested to Dr. Black the notion that the heat received by ice during its conversion into water was not lost, but was contained in the water. The experiments by which he demonstrated the existence of what he termed latent heat in bodies will be found fully detailed in his ‘Lectures.’ The result of these he first read, in April 1762, to a select society in Glasgow, and afterwards before the Newtonian Society in Edinburgh. He remained in Glasgow, occasionally practising as a physician, till 1766, when Dr. Cullen being appointed professor of medicine in Edinburgh, Dr. Black was removed to the chemical chair in that university, where he continued for about thirty years. He contributed a paper to the ‘Philosophical Transactions of London,’ for 1774, entitled ‘Observations on the more ready freezing of water that has been boiled.’ The only other paper written by him was published in the second volume of the ‘Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh,’ being an ‘Analysis of the Waters of some boiling Springs in Iceland,’ in which he found a considerable quantity of silica. The following portrait of Dr. Black is engraved from the painting by Sir Henry Raeburn:

Dr. Black was never married. He long resided in the house in Nicholson Street, Edinburgh, which now forms the Blind Asylum. He was simple in his habits, and very abstemious in his diet. He died suddenly November 26, 1799, while sitting at table with his usual fare, viz., some bread, a few prunes, and a measured quantity of milk diluted with water. Having the cup in his hand, feeling the approach of death, he set it carefully down on his knees, which were joined together, and kept it steady in his hand, in the manner of a person perfectly at ease; and in this attitude expired, without spilling a drop, and without a writhe in his countenance, as if an experiment had been wanted to show to his friends the facility with which he departed. He was in the 71st year of his age. Dr. Black was of a cheerful and sociable disposition, and, as his mind was well stored with information, he was, at all times, an entertaining companion. His company was therefore much courted, and as his circumstances were affluent, he dedicated as much time to the pleasures of society as was consistent with his avocations. He left the principal part of his fortune, which is said to have been considerable, among the children of his brothers and sisters. After his death his ‘Lectures on Chemistry’ were published from his notes in 2 vols. 4to, by his friend and colleague, Dr. Robinson, late professor of natural philosophy in the university of Edinburgh. – Thomson’s History of Chemistry. – Scots Mag. for 1803.

Subjoined is a catalogue of the works of Dr. Black.

Experiments on Magnesia Alba, Quick Lime, and other Alkaline Substances; to which is added, An Essay of Cold, produced by Evaporating Fluids, and some other means of producing Cold, by Dr. Cullen. Edinburgh, 1776-82, 12mo. All these Papers were previously published in the Essays Physical and Literary, vol. ii. p. 157.

The Supposed Effect of Boiling on Water, in disposing it to freeze more readily; ascertained by Experiment. Phil. Trans. Abr. xiii. 610. 1775.

An Analysis of the Waters of some Hot-Springs in Iceland. Ed. Phil. Trans. iii. Part. ii. 94. 1794.

Lectures on the Elements of Chemistry, delivered in the University of Edinburgh, by the late Joseph Black, M.D., now published from his Manuscripts, by John Robison, LL.D. Edin. 1803, 2 vols. 4to.

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