Weekend: Archive - A Modest and Humble Lunatic; Chris Upton Looks at the Life of James Keir, a Man at the Cutting Edge of the New Science of Chemistry

The Birmingham Post (England), November 15, 2003 | Go to article overview
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Weekend: Archive - A Modest and Humble Lunatic; Chris Upton Looks at the Life of James Keir, a Man at the Cutting Edge of the New Science of Chemistry


Byline: Chris Upton

' He is a mighty chemist.' This might not be everyone's preferred choice of compliment, but James Keir would not have refused it. For one thing the word 'chemist' -more correctly spelt 'chymist' -had rather more cache back in the 18th Century.

This was not a man who dispensed cough mixture over the counter, but one at the cutting edge of the new science of chemistry. For another the affectionate nickname was given to him by none other than James Watt.

James Keir, you will probably gather from this, was a member of that foremost scientific fellowship of its day, the Lunar Society.For 40 or so years its members pushed back the frontiers over the whole spectrum of human knowledge, from chemistry and geology to physics and education. They made the Midlands of England the powerhouse of the Industrial Revolution, and by a mixture of scientific experiment and theory, and direct application, they changed the world forever.

Many of the Lunatics (as they jokingly called themselves) are household names, at least in households interested in the history of science. Men like James Watt, Matthew Boulton, Josiah Wedgwood, Joseph Priestley and Erasmus Darwin have shelves of books devoted to them. There are two or three reasons to explain why James Keir has not been so lucky.

Firstly, Keir himself was extremely modest about his achievements. As he wrote in his Dialogues on Chemistry: 'I have learnt enough of chemistry to be sensible that I yet know but little in comparison with what remains to be known.' Such humility Keir took with him to the grave, specifying that no memorial be erected to him at All Saints, West Bromwich, the place of his burial in October 1820.

Secondly, the fire he used so effectively in his industrial work was not so kind to him at home. His house at Hill Top, Wednesbury, burnt down in December 1807, no doubt with a loss of manuscripts and apparatus. And what survived the fire at Hill Top was subsequently lost in a second conflagration at Abberley Hall in Worcestershire, the home of Keir's daughter, Amelia Moilliet, and her Swiss husband.

The third reason for our lack of appreciation of Keir's contribution to science has more to do with us than him. Whereas the discoveries of, say, Priestley or Watt don't require a PhD to understand, Keir's experiments on the production of alkali are not so easy. If the following account reads like the blind leading the blind, blame my school for not allowing me to study chemistry and Ancient Greek.

Like a number of the Lunatics James Keir was Scottish, educated at high school and university in Edinburgh, where his uncle was Lord Provost. It was here that Keir formed a lifetime's friendship with Erasmus Darwin, an association that later brought him down to the Midlands. In the meantime, Keir abandoned his medical studies and joined the army to see the world. Unfortunately for Keir, he saw more of Ireland than anywhere else.

In the mid-1760s Keir resigned his commission and headed south, both for a wife and a new job. He married Susannah Harvey at St Philip's in Birmingham in 1770, and Darwin introduced him into the company of men like Boulton and Wedgwood. They too combined industrial careers with a love of pure science, and it's not surprising to see Keir treading a similar path. At the same time as he was translating the standard French dictionary of chemistry (by Pierre Joseph Macquier) into English, he was setting up in business as a glass manufacturer at Amblecote near Stourbridge. Here he remained until 1778.

That year might have been the launch-pad for a new career.

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Weekend: Archive - A Modest and Humble Lunatic; Chris Upton Looks at the Life of James Keir, a Man at the Cutting Edge of the New Science of Chemistry
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