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IRISH MEN OF SCIENCE
BY SIR BERTRAM C. A. WINDLE, Sc.D., M.D.,
President, University College, Cork.
may divide our survey of the debt owed to Ireland by
science into three periods: the earliest, the intermediate, and the latest.
In the earliest period the names which come before us are chiefly those of compilers such as Augustin, a monk and an Irishman who wrote at Carthage, in Africa, in the seventh century, a Latin treatise on The Wonderful Things of the Sacred Scripture, still extant, in which, in connection with Joshua's miracle, a very full account of the astronomical knowledge of the period, Ptolemaic, but in many ways remarkably accurate, is given. There are, however, three distinguished names. Virgil the Geometer, i. e., Fergil (O'Farrell), was Abbot of Aghaboe, went to the continent in 741, and was afterwards Bishop of Salzburg. He died in 785. He is remembered by his controversies with St. Boniface, one of which is concerned with the question of the Antipodes. Virgil is supposed to have been the first to teach that the earth is spherical. So celebrated was he that it has been thought that a part of the favor in which the author of the Aeneid was held by medieval churchmen was due to a confusion between his name and that of the geometer, sometimes spoken of as St. Virgil.
Dicuil, also an Irish monk, was the author of a remarkable work on geography, De Mensura Provinciarum Orbis Terrae, which was written in 825, and contains interesting references to Iceland and especially to the navigable canal which once connected the Nile with the Red Sea. He wrote between 814 and 816 a work on astronomy which has never been published. It is probable, but not certain, that he belonged to Clonmacnois.
Dungal, like the two others named above, was an astronomer. He probably belonged to Bangor, and left his native land early in the ninth century. In 811 he wrote a remarkable work, Dungali Reclusi Epistola de duplici solis eclipsi anno 810 ad Carolum Magnum. This letter, which is still extant, was written at the request of Charlemagne, who considered its
author to be the most learned astronomer in existence and most likely to clear up the problem submitted to him.
Before passing to the next period, a word should be said as to the medieval physicians, often if not usually belonging to families of medical men, such as the Leahys and O'Hickeys, and attached hereditarily to the greater clans. These men were chiefly compilers, but such works of theirs as we have throw light upon the state of medical knowledge in their day. Thus there is extant a treatise on Materia Medica (1459); written by Cormac MacDuinntsleibhe (Dunleavy), hereditary physician to the clan of O'Donnell in Ulster. A more interesting work is the Cursus Medicus, consisting of six books on Physiology, three on Pathology, and four on Semeiotica, written in the reign of Charles I. of England by Nial O'Glacan, born in Donegal, and at one time physician to the king of France.
O'Glacan's name introduces us to the middle period, if indeed it does not belong there. Inter arma silent leges, and it may be added, scientific work. The troublous state of Ireland for many long years fully explains the absence of men of science in any abundance until the end of the eighteenth century. Still there are three names which can never be forgotten, belonging to the period in question. Sir Hans Sloane was born at Killileagh, in Ulster, in 1660. He studied medicine abroad, went to London where he settled, and was made a Fellow of the Royal Society. He published a work on the West Indies, but his claim to undying memory is the fact that it was the bequest of his most valuable and extensive collections to the nation which was the beginning and foundation of the British Museum, perhaps the most celebrated institution of its kind in the world. Sloane's collection, it should be added, contained an immense number of valuable books and manuscripts, as well as of objects more usually associated with the idea of a museum. He died in 1753.
The Hon. Robert Boyle was born at Lismore, in the county Waterford, in 1627, being the fourteenth child of the first Earl of Cork. On his tombstone he is described as "The Father of Chemistry and the Uncle of the Earl of Cork”, and, indeed, in his Skyptical Chimist (1661), he assailed, and for the time overthrew, the idea of the alchemists that there was a materia prima, asserting as he did that theory of chemical "elements” which held good until the discoveries in connection with radium led to a modification in chemical teaching This may be said of Boyle, that his writings profoundly modified scientific opinion, and his name will always stand in the forefront amongst those of chemists. He made important improvements in the air-pump, was one of the earliest Fellows of the Royal Society, and founded the “Boyle Lectures." He died in 1691.
Sir Thomas Molyneux was born in Dublin, in 1661, of a family which had settled in Ireland about 1560-70. He practised as a physician in his native city, was the first person to describe the Irish Elk and to demonstrate the fact that the Giant's Causeway was a natural and not, as had been previously supposed, an artificial production. He was the author of many other scientific observations. He died in 1733.
We may now turn to more recent times, and it will be convenient to divide our subjects according to the branch of science in which they were distinguished, and to commence with
of whom Ireland may boast of a most distinguished galaxy.
Sir William Rowan Hamilton (b. in Dublin 1805, d. 1865), belonged to a family, long settled in Ireland, but of Scottish extraction. He was a most precocious child. He read Hebrew at the age of seven, and at twelve, had studied Latin, Greek, and four leading continental languages, as well as Persian, Syriac, Arabic, Sanscrit, and other tongues. In 1819 he wrote a letter to the Persian ambassador in that magnate's own language. After these linguistic contests, he early turned to mathematics, in which he was apparently self-taught; yet, in his seventeenth year he discovered an error in Laplace's Mécanique Céleste. He entered Trinity College where he won all kinds of distinctions, being famous not merely as a mathematician, but as a poet, a scholar, and a metaphysician. He was appointed Professor of Astronomy and Astronomer Royal whilst still an undergraduate. He predicted "conical refrac
tion,” afterwards experimentally proved by another Irishman, Humphrey Lloyd. He twice received the Gold Medal of the Royal Society: (i) for optical discoveries; (ii) for his theory of a general method of dynamics, which resolves an extremely abstruse problem relative to a system of bodies in motion. He was the discoverer of a new calculus, that of Quaternions, which attracted the attention of Professor Tait of Edinburgh, and was by him made comprehensible to lesser mathematicians. It is far too abstruse for description here.
Sir George Gabriel Stokes (born in Sligo 1819, d. 1903) was, if not the greatest mathematician, at least among the greatest, of the last hundred years. He was educated in Cambridge, where he spent the rest of his life, being appointed Lucasian Professor of Mathematics in 1849, and celebrating the jubilee of that appointment in 1899. He was member of parliament for his University, and for a time occupied the presidential chair of the Royal Society. He devoted himself, inter alia, to optical work, and is perhaps best known by those researches which deal with the undulatory theory of light. It was on this subject that he delivered the Burnett lectures in Aberdeen (1883-1885).
James McCullagh, the son of a poor farmer, was born in Tyrone in 1809, d. 1847. His early death, due to his own hand in a fit of insanity, cut short his work, but enough remains to permit him to rank amongst the great mathematicians of all time, his most important work being his memoir on surfaces of the second order.
Humphrey Lloyd (b. in Dublin 1800, d. 1881), F. R. S. His father was Provost of Trinity College, Dublin, a position subsequently occupied also by the son. Lloyd's work was chiefly concerned with optics and magnetism, and it was in connection with the former that he carried out what was probably the most important single piece of work of his life, namely, the experimental proof of the phenomenon of conical refraction which had been predicted by Sir William Hamilton. He was responsible for the erection of the Magnetic Observatory in Dublin, and the instruments used in it were constructed under his observation and sometimes from his designs or modifications. He was also a meteorologist of distinction.
George Salmon (b. in Dublin 1819, d. 1904), like the last mentioned subject, was, at the time of his death, Provost of Trinity College, Dublin. Besides theological writings, he contributed much to mathematical science, especially in the directions of conic sections, analytic geometry, higher plane curves, and the geometry of three dimensions. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society, and received the Copley and Royal medals, as well as distinctions from many universities and learned societies.
John Casey (b. Kilkenny 1820, d. 1891), F. R. S., was educated at a National School and became a teacher in one in later years. Entirely self-taught as a mathematician, he raised himself from the humble position which he occupied to be a university professor (in the Catholic University of Ireland, and afterwards in the Royal University), and earned the highest reputation as one of the greatest authorities on plane geometry. He was a correspondent of eminent mathematicians all over the world.
Henry Hennessey (b. in Cork 1826, d. 1901), F. R. S., was also a professor in the Catholic University of Ireland and afterwards in the Royal College of Science in Dublin. He was a writer on mathematics, terrestrial physics, and climatology.
Benjamin Williamson (b. in Cork 1827), F. R. S., is a Senior Fellow of Trinity College, Dublin, and a distinguished writer on mathematical subjects, especially on the differential, integral, and infinitesimal calculuses.
Sir Joseph Larmor (b. in Antrim 1857), F. R. S., was educated at Queen's College, Belfast, and in Cambridge, in which last place he has spent his life as a professor. He now represents the University in parliament and is secretary to the Royal Society. He is well-known for his writings on the ether and on other physical as well as mathematical subjects.
William Parsons, Earl of Rosse (b. in York 1800, d. 1867), F. R. S., was a very distinguished astronomer who experimented in fluid lenses and made great improvements in casting specula for reflecting telescopes. From 1842-45 he was engaged upon the construction, in his park at Parsonstown, of