Learn about many of the talented scientists through the ages who have advanced our technology and knowledge of the world! This is a collection of short biographies selected from our Science Explorations archive.
Alexander Graham Bell
Leonardo da Vinci
Sir Humphrey Davy
William & Caroline Herschel
James Clerk Maxwell
Sir Isaac Newton
Pietro Angelo Secchi
George Gabriel Stokes
Antony van Leeuwenhoek
Wernher von Braun
Wilbur & Orville Wright
Charles Bell (1774-1842)
Do you ever wonder how great artists can paint a human face that looks perfectly realistic? One of Charles Bell's contributions to art was an anatomy textbook especially for artists, called Essays on the Anatomy of Expression in Painting. Charles Bell was an artist himself, as well as a surgeon and anatomist. He was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, the son of a Church of England minister. His older brother John was a surgeon, author, and teacher of anatomy at the University of Edinburgh. Studying with his brother, Bell developed both his artistic talent and his medical knowledge. After he graduated from the University with a degree in medicine, Bell assisted in teaching his brother's anatomy class and publishing a four-volume Anatomy textbook.
Eventually Bell moved to London where he did extensive research on nerves, wrote many books and treatises, opened a school of anatomy, and worked as a surgeon. In 1815 he cared for the wounded after the bloody battle of Waterloo, his skill in surgery holding him in good stead. His battlefield experience led him to create illustrations of gunshot wounds to be used by surgeons.
Bell's research on the brain and nerves proved foundational for modern neurology. He determined that nerves only sent information one way: some took sensory information to the brain, and some took commands from the brain to the rest of the body. He also traced nerves from special sensory organs (such as the eye) to specific parts of the brain.
Through all his research and medical illustration, Bell recognized the hand of a Creator. In 1836 he was invited to contribute to a collection of works “On the Power, Wisdom, and Goodness of God as Manifested in the Creation.” He agreed, and wrote a treatise called The Hand; its Mechanism and Vital Endowment, as Evincing Design.
Bell was knighted by King William IV in 1831, and in 1835 he accepted a position as professor of surgery and returned to Scotland. He continued to work in his field up until his death in 1842.
Nathaniel Bowditch (1773-1838)
You may be familiar with the amazing mathematician Nathaniel Bowditch from Jean Lee Latham's historical novel, Carry On, Mr. Bowditch. Bowditch was born in the coast town of Salem, Massachusetts, just before the American War for Independence. His formal education ended at the age of ten, when he began to work for his father, a cooper (one who makes and mends wooden barrels). In 1785, he became an apprentice clerk in a ship's chandler shop (which provided supplies and provisions for ships). He made time to study during his apprenticeship, however: perhaps the most notable thing about Bowditch is his appetite for learning. He taught himself algebra, and then calculus and Latin so that he could read Isaac Newton's Principia. The library in Salem had Irish scientist Richard Kirwan's personal collection of books, which had been captured en route between Ireland and England by an American privateer.
Beginning in 1795, Bowditch made several voyages on merchant ships, and in 1802 he sailed in command of a ship of which he was a joint owner. Bowditch used any available time onboard to continue his studies, which included French by this time. In 1798 he married Elizabeth Boardman, who died a few months later while he was at sea. Two years later he married his cousin Mary Ingersoll, and together they had eight children.
Bowditch worked mathematical problems for the fun of it. He checked and corrected the equations in John Hamilton Moore's Practical Navigator, in preparation for publishing the first American edition of the work. Based on all of the corrections and changes he made through several editions of Moore's book, he was able to publish his own work, the New American Practical Navigator, in 1802. Through the rest of his life he published scholarly articles in American and European journals, and gained international fame. Several colleges, Harvard and West Point among them, offered him positions in mathematics and science; instead, he continued to work for the Essex Fire and Marine Insurance Company in Salem. He was elected to the American Philosophical Society and the Royal Societies in London and Edinburgh.
Robert Boyle (1627-1691)
Robert Boyle is often called the “father of modern chemistry.” He was born on January 25, 1627, in Ireland, the son of Richard Boyle, the Earl of Cork, who was possibly the richest man in Great Britain. Boyle was the 14th in a family of 15 children, 12 of whom survived childhood. He was educated both at Eton College and by tutors at home, but never attended a university. In 1641 Boyle traveled with his tutor to Italy, and he was still there when Galileo died in 1642. He began to study Galileo's works, which influenced him greatly and directed him to scientific study.
In 1654, Boyle moved to Oxford where he was a part of the “Invisible College,” a group of scientists that eventually became the Royal Society of London, which is still the oldest continuous scientific society. Boyle's major scientific contributions included developing the vacuum pump and using it to prove that air is necessary for sound to travel. His most important work was done in the field of chemistry, earning him the name, “The Mighty Chemist.” By publishing detailed accounts of his experiments, including the procedure steps, apparatus and observations, Boyle made a strong case for an empirical approach to science. This means that he tested his theories and derived conclusions from his actual observations. Previously, many scientists had devised theories and tried to prove them with logic alone, rather than using physical experimentation. Because of his strength in experimentation, Boyle is considered one of the pioneers of the scientific method. Among many other things, Boyle's experiments provided methods for classifying substances by performing acid tests and alkali tests.
In addition to his scientific endeavors, Boyle was a devout Christian. He saw no conflict between religion and science, but rather he appreciated the fact that nature proclaims God's power. From a desire to bring the gospel to the nations, he promoted and supported efforts to translate the Bible into other languages. In 1680 he was offered the position of president of the Royal Society, but declined because the oaths of office violated his Christian principles.
He lived in London from 1688 until his death in 1691.
Marie Curie (1867-1934)
Marie Curie, a famous scientist of the 20th century, was born in Poland with the name Maria Sklodowska. Her parents were both teachers and although her mother died when she was 10, her father was very influential in her education. Marie graduated from high school with highest honors but was suffering from depression, so her father sent her to spend a year on her cousins' farm. Poland at this time was controlled by Russia, and the Polish people were allowed only a limited amount of education. Marie and her sister Bronya studied at an illegal “floating university,” with night classes whose location changed frequently. The sisters agreed to help put each other through school in Paris, where women were free to go to universities. Marie worked as a governess for several years to put Bronya through medical school. Marie taught herself basic chemistry during this time, as well as taught some Polish peasant children to read (even though it was against the law). Then her father got a better job and was able to finish paying for Bronya's schooling, so Marie was able to save her money and go to Paris herself.
She registered at the famous Sorbonne university in 1891, officially changing her first name to Marie but keeping her Polish last name. In the beginning, Marie lived in an attic and at times had to wear all the clothing she owned just to keep warm. She worked hard and got her physics masters degree in three years, a math degree a year later, and was awarded a physics scholarship! While looking for a laboratory where she could conduct research, she met Pierre Curie. He let her share his lab, the start of working side by side in scientific research for the rest of their lives. They were married a year later, in 1895.
Eventually Pierre's father (a widower) moved in to help care for the Curies' young daughters, Irene and Eve, while their parents were working in the lab. Marie encouraged Pierre to finish writing his thesis and get his doctorate. He was proud of her own interest in science; she became the first woman in France to get a doctorate in science. Marie did her doctoral research on radiation, following up on Becquerel's work with uranium and radiation. He had discovered that uranium emits energy (radiation) without first absorbing energy from another source. Marie use an electrometer that Pierre and his brother had invented for measuring low electrical currents. She proved that radioactivity is a property of uranium; the energy actually comes from the atoms that uranium is made of. Pierre shelved his own investigation of crystals and helped Marie conduct her research. They discovered radium and polonium, which are radioactive elements in the uranium ore pitchblende. They worked in a shed because they couldn't afford good laboratory conditions, although eventually others noticed their research and provided financial support for a better lab.
Marie rightly believed that radiation could be used for medical purposes, like killing cancer and diseased cells. She became the first woman to win a Nobel prize when she, Pierre, and Becquerel were awarded the prize for physics in 1903. Just three years later, Pierre died when he fell and was crushed by a wagon. Both of them had been suffering health problems, although they refused to believe that it was from working with radioactive materials.
Marie continued to work hard after Pierre's death. She founded the Radium Institute for research. She took on Pierre's professorship, becoming the Sorbonne's first woman teacher. She also taught science once a week at her oldest daughter's co-op school! Marie won a second Nobel prize in 1911 (this time in chemistry, for her work isolating radium), the first person ever to win two Nobel prizes. During the first World War, Marie and her daughter Irene trained others on the medical uses of radiation. After Marie died in 1934, Irene and her husband continued to research and received the Nobel prize in 1935 for discovering artificial radioactivity.
Georges Cuvier (1769-1832)
Georges Cuvier, the great comparative anatomist, was born in August 1769 in the Jura Mountains between France and Switzerland. As a young man, he studied in the German town of Stuttgart and then worked as tutor for a noble family in Normandy. In 1795 Cuvier moved to Paris, where he taught and did research at the Musée National d'Histoire Naturelle (National Museum of Natural History). During his lifetime he served in government positions under three widely different French regimes: the Revolution directorate, Napoleon, and the monarchy.
Cuvier, who was skilled at accurately reconstructing skeletons, founded the science of vertebrate paleontology and established that extinction of species was a fact. He did careful comparisons of elephant anatomy and demonstrated that Indian and African elephants were separate species from each other, and that the species that mammoth fossils from Siberia and Europe belonged to were distinct species that differed from living elephants.
At the same time, Cuvier believed that evolution from one species to another was impossible–species were too unique. An organism could not survive a change to its anatomy. He examined mummified cats and ibises that Napoleon brought back from Egypt, and showed that they were the same as living species. To explain the extinction of species, Cuvier speculated that there must be periodic “revolutions” in the earth's history; times of natural catastrophe that affected geology.
Cuvier classified animals in four branches: Vertebrata (animals having backbones), Articulata (arthropods and segmented worms), Radiata (echinoderms and cnidarians), and Mollusca (all other soft invertebrates). He believed similarities between animals were based on shared functions, not ancestors, as later evolutionary scientists suggested.
Like Pasteur and Fabre, Georges Cuvier was a French scientist who was influential during his lifetime. He was acclaimed by both the scientific community and the government: Louis Agassiz, another famous scientist, was one of his followers; and under the rule of the monarchy he was made a baron.
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)
Leonardo da Vinci, one of the best-known artists ever, was also a scientist. He designed machines and made detailed studies of human anatomy in addition to doing work in other branches of life science and physics.
Leonardo was born in 1452, the illegitimate son of the notary Ser Piero and a peasant girl named Caterina. He was raised in his father's house where he had access to scholarly works. While still in his teens, he was apprenticed to the Florentine painter Verrochio. Afterward he went to work for Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan. From 1482 until the duke's fall from power in 1499, Leonardo worked on designs for weapons and machinery, as well as did studies in architecture, geometry, and human anatomy. His main works were scientific, but among the half dozen great paintings he did was the famous “The Last Supper”. In 1490 he begin to keep notebooks of the sketches and notes from his different studies.
After the Duke's fall, Leonardo had to look for patronage elsewhere. He worked for Cesare Borgia as “military architect and general engineer”, returned to Milan for a while, and then did some work in Rome for the Pope. From 1503-1506 he worked on the Mona Lisa, or “La Gioconda”. Then, in 1516 Leonardo was offered a position with Francis I in France. He spent the remainder of his life there, drawing studies of floods, dragons, machines, and the human body.
In addition to creativity, Leonardo had a remarkable gift for observation. His curiosity about the human body led him to dissect cadavers under unpleasant conditions, and he paid careful attention to every detail of these bodies, reproducing them in sketches of specific features such as the skeleton, muscles, or organs.
He was also brilliant as an inventor, particularly of war machines. Among his notes and sketches are plans for a tank and submarine. He realized the importance of levers and gears in machines (gears were a central part in most of his inventions). Although many of his projects were never carried out, modern engineers have determined that one of his most incredible plans–to build a bridge across the Bosphorus, the strait of water in Turkey that's between Asia and Europe–would have been successful.
John Dalton (1766-1844)
John Dalton, the British chemist and physicist, was born in the Lake District of England in 1766, to a Quaker family. His education was a conglomeration of sources: he was taught by his father, attended a Quaker school, was taught mathematics by a relative, and studied science on his own. At the age of 12, he taught school for a short time. Later, he taught in schools with his cousin and his brother. In 1793 Dalton moved to Manchester and taught mathematics and natural philosophy at New College, a university which, unlike Oxford and Cambridge, was open to students of other denominations than Church of England. Later, when the college relocated, he remained in Manchester and gave private math and chemistry lessons.
In 1787 Dalton begin taking meteorological (weather-related) observations. Over the course of his life, he wrote down around 200,000 weather observations and measurements, and in 1793 he published his Meteorological Observations and Essays. Around this time, he wrote a paper about color blindness (originally known as Daltonism, in his honor). His paper was the first description of color blindness, a condition which he himself had.
Dalton is most famous for his atomic theory, first put forward in 1803. Although Dalton's theory did not explain everything correctly, it was still the basis for understanding some important properties of atoms. Dalton's theory held that chemical elements are made of atoms; that all atoms in one kind of element have the same mass and atoms of different elements have different masses; and that compounds of elements are made up in set ratios–atoms join in certain combinations. He made up his own symbols for notation of different elements and also worked to estimate atomic masses.
Beginning in 1794, Dalton was a member of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society (he became its president in 1817). He remained a bachelor for the whole of his life.
To find out more about John Dalton's system of notation and see what his symbols for various elements looked like, visit http://www.uh.edu/engines/epi1411.htm.
Sir Humphry Davy (1778-1829)
Davy was born in the county of Cornwall, England, on December 17, 1778. He was educated there, becoming apprenticed to a surgeon-apothecary when his father died. A few years later he moved to Bristol and became superintendent of a medical institution. At the age of 22, he wrote Researches, Chemical and Philosophical about his work on the effects of nitrous oxide (later known as laughing gas). He experimented with the gas, even inhaling it himself–one of the supposed causes of the sickness he suffered toward the end of his life.
The next work he did was in electrochemistry. His use of electrolysis (passing electric current through a substance to break it down into parts) led him to propose correctly that elements in a compound are held together by electrical forces.
Davy isolated the elements sodium, magnesium, potassium, calcium, boron (along with Gay-Lussac), and barium. He also determined that chlorine was an element rather than an oxygen compound, and he gave it its name (after the Greek word for “yellow-green”). He experimented with iodine, proved that diamonds are formed by carbon, and rightly suggested that acids contain hydrogen. Altogether, Davy isolated more elements than any other chemist did up till the 20th century.
Although he was known for his work in chemistry, Davy was more famous for his invention of a safe miner's lamp. Methane gas in coal mines would explode on contact with the flame of the candles that the miners used for light, causing deaths and damage. Davy was asked to find a solution. He came up with a design for a lamp that surrounded the flame with fine wire gauze. Some light was still able to shine out, but the flame caused only contained explosions in the chamber where the gas entered the lamp; the gauze kept the heat of the flame from spreading to the outside gases. Davy's method was used in later improvements of mine lighting.
During his lifetime, Davy was accorded numerous honors. He was elected a fellow to the Royal Society in 1803; two years later he received its prestigious Copley Medal; and in 1820 he was elected as its president. In addition, he received an award from Napoleon Bonaparte, who was impressed by his work in electrochemistry. He was knighted in 1812 under the Prince Regent (while George III was suffering from bouts of insanity) and received a baronetcy.
Henri Fabre (1823-1915)
Henri Fabre, like Louis Pasteur, was a French scientist whose work benefited his native country and who received recognition during his lifetime. As a boy, he moved several times, living sometimes with his family and sometimes going away to school. He received a scholarship to a primary teacher training school, and began to teach three years later at the age of 19. Over the next few years he earned a physics degree, and eventually a doctorate. In 1949 he moved to Corsica, where he taught physics at a university. Fabre’s interests were not limited to physical science, however. While on the island, he spent time with a well-known botanist and studied Corsica’s flora and fauna.
Returning to the continent in 1853, he taught school and did research on how to improve the red garancine dye (from the roots of a plant) that the French Army used to color the material for uniform trousers. In 1860 he registered three different patents for garancine. Fabre had other interests, too; in 1878 he published a work on mushrooms and in the same year published the first book in his popular ten-volume Souvenirs Entomologiques series on insects.
Fabre married a teacher in 1844 and with her had seven children (the first two died as infants). In 1887, two years after his wife’s death, he married again and had three more children. In his old age, he was awarded many scientific honors as well as the Legion of Honor.
Charles Darwin corresponded with Fabre and respected his work; but unlike many other scientists of his time, Fabre rejected the theory of evolution. Visit this site to read some of Darwin's correspondence with him, as well as e-texts of Fabre's work: www.efabre.net.
Michael Faraday (1791-1867)
There were many great scientists in the Victorian age (c. 1830-1900) who made advances in chemistry, physics, and medicine. Michael Faraday was one of these scientists. He was born near London in 1791. Faraday, the son of a blacksmith, went to day school and then, at age 13 or 14, was apprenticed to a bookbinder. During this time he began to develop an interest in science and performed some chemistry experiments. He joined the City Philosophical Society to discuss scientific findings and gave his first scientific lectures there.
In 1812, near the end of his apprenticeship, Faraday was given tickets to attend some lectures by Humphry Davy, a famous chemist. Faraday made a book of his notes from the lectures, which he presented to Davy and then asked him for a job. Davy turned him down, but a year later there was an opening for Chemical Assistant at the Royal Institution, and Davy appointed him. Later in the year, Faraday went along as Davy's assistant on an 18-month scientific tour of Europe. Afterward he continued to work for the Royal Institution and do experiments in the lab there. He was promoted in 1821 and got married the same year.
Although Faraday performed notable chemistry experiments, among them liquefying chlorine to prove that a gas could be turned into a different state of matter, he is best known for his work in electromagnetism. In 1821 he discovered electromagnetic rotation, the principle behind electric motors. Ten years later, he discovered electromagnetic induction which was the force behind the electric generator that he invented. After that, he and a classicist developed words we still use to describe electrical phenomena: “electrode,” “electrolyte,” and “ion” to name a few. In 1845 Faraday investigated the relationship between light and magnetism, doing an experiment which showed that light could be affected by magnetic force. This was later called the Faraday Effect. His theories were later put in mathematical form by James Clerk Maxwell, making them a foundational physics concept.
Later in life, Faraday worked to make lighthouses more efficient (he invented a special chimney for oil lamps), taught chemistry at the Royal Military Academy, and even was an expert witness in a trial. He was a member of the Sandemanian church, a denomination which believed in a strict literal interpretation of the Bible, and gave a lecture at the Royal Institution against spiritualism, which was first becoming popular then. Although he had worked closely with the Royal Institution for most of his life, in 1864 Faraday turned down an offer to be its president. In addition to being known for his humility, Faraday gave to many charitable causes and started yearly “Christmas lectures” about science for children. You can read some of Faraday's Christmas lectures here.
Galileo Galilei (1564-1642)
The great Italian scientist and mathematician, Galileo Galilei, was born in 1564. In 1589 he taught mathematics to students in his hometown of Pisa and in 1591 he moved to Padua where he held a professorship in mathematics. His interests, though, extended to other branches of science, including mechanics, magnetism, and astronomy. Among his inventions are a hydrostatic pump, geometric compass, thermoscope, and an improved model of microscope.
However, the discoveries that Galileo is most known for are in the field of astronomy. He made his own telescope, with a higher magnification power than the other telescopes of the day. In 1610, Galileo published Sidereus Nuncius (Message from the stars), a work in which he set forth his observations on sunspots, the moon's physical geography, the phases of Venus, and his discovery of the moons of Jupiter. These discoveries supported the Copernican system of the universe: Copernicus had developed a heliocentric theory in which the sun was at the center of the universe, and the earth, planets, and stars were located in spheres around it. There were still some “bugs” to be worked out-for example, Copernicus and Galileo believed that the earth and other heavenly bodies orbited the sun in a prefect circle, rather than an ellipse-but it was the forerunner of the system that is held today.
In 1632 Galileo wrote his Dialogue concerning two great world systems, a fictitious dialogue between three men, discussing the merits and problems of the heliocentric Copernican and geocentric Ptolemaic view of the universe. The work was condemned by the Roman Catholic Church, who felt that Galileo was going too far by presenting the Copernican theory as fact. Not only the church, but also many of the scientists of the time, felt that the heliocentric theory of the universe was a faulty one. Galileo was placed under house arrest for the rest of his life. In 1636, he wrote a Dialogue on two new sciences, concerning the laws of motion. He is the first to have suggested that all bodies fall at the same rate if there is an absence of opposing force.
William Harvey (1578-1657)
William Harvey was born in England on April 1, 1578, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. As a young man, he attended college in Cambridge and received a Bachelor of Arts in 1597. After that he studied medicine at the University of Padua, in Italy. When he returned to England in 1602, he got another medical degree from Cambridge. Around the same time, Harvey married Elizabeth Brown, the daughter of one of Queen Elizabeth's physicians.
Harvey received a fellowship at the Royal College of Physicians, and gave medical lectures. He was also physician to Saint Bartholomew's Hospital in London, until 1643. In 1618 Harvey was appointed as a physician to James I and continued to serve as doctor to the royal family, under Charles I, until the English Civil War in 1642.
Most scientists at that time thought that “nutritive” blood was made in the liver, and that “vital” blood was made in the heart. They also thought that the heart sucked blood into itself, rather than pumped it. Harvey learned from dissecting animals and cadavers that this was not possible. He proved that the heart is a pump, and that blood is pumped back through the heart and body in a closed system, rather than used up by the body.
His work, On the Movement of the Heart and Blood in Animals, was published in 1628, in Latin. The foundation for the book came from college lectures that he had given, beginning in 1615. Harvey wrote anothe