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People > Scottish Innovators > Joseph Black

Notable Scots: Innovation & Discovery

Joseph Black (1728-1799):

Physician, Physicist, & Chemist

"No man had less nonsense in his head than Dr. Black."
~ Adam Smith
Engraving of Black
Engraving of Black

Joseph Black, one of thirteen surviving children born to John and Margaret Black, was reared in Bordeaux, France, while his father was working in the wine trade. Black returned to his ancestral homeland (his mother hailed from Aberdeenshire) at the age of sixteen to enter the University of Glasgow. Black studied the arts for four years before turning to medicine, his father's insistence that he pursue more practical coursework. The professor of medicine at Glasgow, William Cullen, had introduced the university's first Chemistry lectures the previous year; employed Black as a laboratory assistant.

Black completed four more years of further study in medicine at the University of Edinburgh before returning the Glasgow to succeed Cullen (who moved on to the University of Edinburgh) as Chair of Medicine. He spent ten years in that capacity, then once again succeeded his old professor as the Chair of Medicine and Chemistry at Edinburgh, which he held until 1797. At Edinburgh, he proved himself an excellent teacher, supplementing his lectures with simple and elegant experiments. Each class was attended by an average of 200 students during the 1790s; the university today estimates that he must have taught over five thousand pupils during his tenure 1.

While a student at Edinburgh, Black studied the properties of carbon dioxide. His experiments involved the very first careful gravimetric (weight) measurements on changes brought about when the products of heated magnesia alba reacted with acids or alkalis. Upon his return to Glasgow as Chair of Medicine in 1756, Black became the first person to isolate a pure carbon dioxide compound, proving that air was not an element, as previously believed. That winter, he experimented with the freezing and melting of water and water/alcohol mixtures that led to his concept of latent heat of infusion. He conducted similar experiments to establish ideas regarding latent heat and vaporization, leading him to develop the concept of heat capacity. Black's theory of latent heat, which described the amount of energy in heat form released or absorbed by a chemical substance during a change of state, kept him in constant communication with his colleague James Watt, who was also conducting experiments with heat and steam.

Black was also a noted physician whose patients included fellow intellectuals David Hume, Adam Smith and his most intimate companion, James Hutton. Hutton and Black, similar in disposition, passed every afternoon in each other's company. Black's biographer, Sir William Ramsay, said of their friendship:

"Each had something to give which the other was in want of. Dr, Black derived great amusement from the vivacity of his friend, the sallies of his 1 wit, the glow and original turn of his expression ; and that calmness and serenity of mind which, even in a man of genius, may border on languor or monotony, received a pleasing impulse by sympathy with more powerful emotions."
~ Sir William Ramsay 2
Drawing of Black
Drawing of Black

Ramsay then relates a telling anecdote found in John Kay's Portraits of Black and Hutton: the two men were discussing the waste of food when they wondered why testaceous land animals were neglected as articles of diet while their marine counterparts were so highly admired. Resolving to put their discourse into practice, the two gathered numerous snails, had them cooked, and sat down to feast. They proceeded gingerly, neither wishing to show his true disdain to the other. Dr. Black broke the ice first. "Doctor?" He formed his words with delicate care, as if to test his friend's opinion. "Doctor, do you not think that they taste a little - a very little queer?"

"Queer?" choked Dr. Hutton. "Queer? Tak them awa', tak them awa'!" He rose and left the table in disgust.

Black died suddenly and peacefully at his breakfast table at the age of 71, following several years of increasing frailty and declining health. In his will, he left more money than thought possible to have been collected by a professor.

  1. University of Edinburgh, Department of Chemistry, History, Professors: Joseph Black.
  2. Ramsay, Sir William, The Life and Letters of. Joseph Black, M.D., Constable & Co.: London, 1918. p.115
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