Genius Eclipsed: The Fate of Robert Boyle: The Natural Philosopher and Scientist Robert Boyle Was Revered in His Time for His Pioneering Enquiry into a Wide Range of Natural Phenomena. Yet within Half a Century of His Death He Was Almost Forgotten, Overshadowed by His Contemporary Isaac Newton

By Hunter, Michael | History Today, November 2009 | Go to article overview

Genius Eclipsed: The Fate of Robert Boyle: The Natural Philosopher and Scientist Robert Boyle Was Revered in His Time for His Pioneering Enquiry into a Wide Range of Natural Phenomena. Yet within Half a Century of His Death He Was Almost Forgotten, Overshadowed by His Contemporary Isaac Newton


Hunter, Michael, History Today


In April 1733 the Gentleman's Magazine announced a competition to celebrate the installation of a bust of the natural philosopher, Robert Boyle (1627-91), in the Hermitage, a structure erected in the royal gardens at Richmond by Queen Caroline, wife of George II. The Hermitage was 'very Gothique, being a Heap of Stones thrown into a very artful Disorder, and curiously embellished with Moss and Shrubs, to represent rude Nature'. Inside it were busts of four contemporary thinkers, Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), John Locke (1632-1704), Samuel Clarke (1675-1729) and William Wollaston (1659-1724), and the bust of Boyle represented the finishing touch. It was placed 'on a pedestal, in the inmost, and, as it were, the most sacred Recess of the Place; behind his Head a large Golden Sun, darting his wide spreading Beams all about, and towards the others, to whom his Aspect is directed'. It was literally Boyle's apotheosis--the way he was placed in an apse with a sunburst behind him was reminiscent of Bernini's 'Ecstasy of St Teresa'--and no less striking was the arrangement of the ensemble so that he presided over his peers.

The Hermitage itself has long since disappeared, though the busts still survive, including the rather idealised image of Boyle that is now thought to be by the Italian sculptor, Giovanni Battista Guelfi. When constructed, however, it powerfully expressed a view of Boyle as representing a pinnacle in recent English intellectual achievement--as a prolific and innovative scientist who at the same time illustrated the harmony between science and religion. In a series of seminal books, published between 1660 and his death in 1691, Boyle had done more than anyone to vindicate the study of nature by carefully controlled and fully recorded experiments; he was also one of the leading protagonists of the mechanical philosophy, the idea that everything in the world could be explained in terms of the interaction of matter and motion. Equally notable was the sheer breadth of his curiosity about natural phenomena, from the nature of colours or cold to that of the air (which he investigated with a vacuum pump, the subject of his first scientific book), and from hydrostatics or the structure of crystals to the workings of the human body. Boyle also insisted on the potential utility of scientific findings to all aspects of human life, the subject of one of his most successful books, Of the Usefulness of Natural Philosophy (1663-71). No less important were his profound writings about the philosophical aspects of science and the relations between God and nature. He powerfully exemplified almost every aspect of the ethos of science in his day.

But the adulation represented by the Hermitage was not to be repeated. It is symptomatic that, shortly afterwards, Boyle failed to find a place in another, comparable architectural composition--this one still extant--the Temple of British Worthies at Stowe in Buckinghamshire. The same was true a few years later when busts of various modern celebrities were commissioned for the library at Trinity College, Cambridge. Instead, in both cases the role of leading scientist was taken by Newton and Newton has dominated perceptions of the science of the period ever since, with particular reference to his famous Principia of 1687. Indeed, Newton's name has become such a byword for the science of his day that, for many, contemporaries like Boyle are hardly remembered at all. The biography that I have just published is the first to appear for 40 years and only the fifth since Boyle's death. Newton, by contrast, has been the subject of an almost endless flow of biographical studies. How, therefore, can one account for the rapid eclipse of Boyle in 18th-century English culture and for the accompanying dominance of Newton that has continued ever since?

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At the outset it is worth noting that this was not the result of malice. …

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Genius Eclipsed: The Fate of Robert Boyle: The Natural Philosopher and Scientist Robert Boyle Was Revered in His Time for His Pioneering Enquiry into a Wide Range of Natural Phenomena. Yet within Half a Century of His Death He Was Almost Forgotten, Overshadowed by His Contemporary Isaac Newton
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