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 another book in 1651, Essays on the Generation of Animals, which was the foundation of modern embryology (the study of an embryo’s development from conception to birth). Harvey died in 1657.
William & Caroline Herschel (1738-1822, 1750-1848)
William Herschel was born in Hanover, Germany in 1738, followed twelve years later by his sister, Caroline. Both were destined to become famous astronomers, although they originally pursued careers in music. Their father was a musician for the military. He saw to it that not only his four sons were educated, but Caroline as well, in spite of her mother’s wishes that she and her sister learn exclusively “homemaking” skills. At the age of 10, Caroline came down with typhoid, which stunted her growth. She never grew taller than 4’3″ and was frail throughout her life, but she lived to be 98 years old!
William moved to England to compose and teach music, and in 1872 Caroline joined him. She trained to be a singer, even getting a solo role in Handel’s Messiah. However, she and her brother both gave up their musical careers after William discovered the planet Uranus in 1781. King George III gave William a royal appointment and paid him a pension; he also gave a pension to Caroline for her work as William’s assistant. During this time, William would study the night sky through his telescope and Caroline would record the observations as well as do the mathematical calculations that were involved.
Caroline is famous for her observations of comets, five of which had never been discovered before. She was also the first woman scientist to be elected to the Royal Society, though her position was honorary rather than active. In addition to discovering a planet, William made important observations about the sun’s motion in space and the approximate size and shape of the Milky Way galaxy. He used a process of “star gauging,” taking sample counts of the stars visible in his telescope’s field of view. Although he underestimated the size of the galaxy, he was correct in supposing that the Milky Way is disc-shaped. Both he and Caroline also did extensive work cataloging stars (making lists of known stars).
The Herschel astronomy tradition was passed on to William’s son, John, who discovered more than 500 nebulae.
James Joule (1818-1889)
James Prescott Joule was born in England on Christmas Eve, 1818. He was educated at home by tutors until the age of sixteen, when he and his brother Benjamin went to Cambridge to study under the chemist John Dalton. At the age of nineteen, he returned home to Manchester to work for the prosperous brewery that his family owned. In Manchester he began experimenting with electric motors in a laboratory that he built in his family’s cellar. Joule was interested in replacing steam engines with electric motors, and attempted to build his own models. Although he eventually had some success, his interest turned to heat and energy.
Unlike most of the other men who were making major scientific discoveries during the Victorian Age–Michael Faraday, Lord Kelvin, and James Clerk Maxwell for example–Joule was not a scientist in career. He chose to be a brewer for most of his life, with physics as a hobby–although it was one that he spent most of his money on. He was precise in his work, which is an important quality in a good scientist.
Joule married Amelia Grimes in 1847. On their honeymoon in Europe, he spent time at a waterfall measuring the temperature at the top and bottom of it to see if there was a change. (The energy of falling water is converted to heat, meaning the temperature rises one degree for every so many feet it drops.) James and Amelia Joule had three children, the last of whom died in 1854 shortly after birth. Amelia died soon after.
In 1852 Joule worked with William Thompson (who would later be made Lord Kelvin) in thermodynamics research. They discovered that when gas expands without doing work, its temperature falls. This was named the Joule-Thompson Effect in their honor and is an important part of how refrigeration and air conditioning works. Among his major contributions to science was proving the conservation of energy–it can’t be created or destroyed. He found the mechanical equivalent of heat (the relation between work and heat) and discovered what came to be known as Joule’s Law (the heat produced in a wire by electrical current is proportional to the resistance of the wire multiplied by the square of the current). He also demonstrated that heat was a form of energy. In 1855 Joule invented electric or “arc” welding and invented a displacement pump in 1872.
In 1850 Joule became a member of the Royal Society and received its Copley Medal in 1866. In 1875 the Joule brewery failed and Joule had to rely on funding from scientific societies to continue his research. Three years later, Queen Victoria granted him a pension.
In honor of his advances in understanding energy–especially heat–the standard unit for measuring energy is called the joule (J).
Richard Kirwan (1733-1812)
Richard Kirwan was born in County Galway, Ireland, in 1733. He received much of his education in France and began studying at the University of Poitiers when he was seventeen. In 1754 he began a Jesuit novitiate but returned to Ireland the next year when his older brother–the heir to the family estate–died. After joining the evangelical state church, he spent a few years in the field of law, after which he turned to science. While living for a while in London, Kirwan joined the Royal Society–a group of men who were interested in science–and wrote a number of scholarly papers and books. In 1784, he wrote Elements in Mineralogy, the first systematic work on mineralogy (the study, classification, and identification of minerals). Kirwan moved to Dublin in 1787, where he helped to found the Royal Irish Society. He became the Society’s president in 1799, holding that position until the time of his death.
For several years Kirwan supported the phlogiston theory, the idea that a hypothetical substance called phlogiston caused burning. He wrote a book upholding this theory which was translated by the wife of a French scientist, Lavoisier. Lavoisier, who is now famous for showing that burning is caused by the presence of oxygen and not phlogiston, was allowed to include a word of warning as the preface to the book. Kirwan was later convinced that Lavoisier was correct and was not too proud to admit that he had been wrong about phlogiston.
Kirwan made contributions to the fields of chemistry, mineralogy, and meteorology as well as wrote a book on logic. He also wrote a book supporting flood geology, the idea that most fossils were put in place by the biblical Flood.
Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778)
Carl Linnaeus, more commonly known as Carolus Linnaeus from Latin, the scholarly language of his time, is often called the “father of biological taxonomy” after his system for the scientific grouping of organisms. He was born in Sweden in 1707, during a time that was a high point in both music and science, as men like J.S. Bach and Sir Isaac Newton were in the midst of their careers. He was well-educated, studying medicine and botany at two Swedish universities and then two universities in the Netherlands.
While still at the University of Leiden Holland), Linnaeus wrote a pamphlet about plant classification. This pamphlet was the forerunner of his famous book published under the same name, Systema naturae, in which his system of binomial classification is expounded. The system is binomial (literally “two-name”) because it includes genus and species in a name. For example, the genus of the Monarch butterfly is Danus and the species is plexippus, making the full name Danus plexippus. This system allows scientists to classify the over one million known species of insects as well as other species. Linnaeus’ basis for this system was belief in the fixity of species–that animals could not breed with animals outside their “kind”.
Linnaeus became a doctor, a professor at the University of Leiden , and later doctor to the royal household in Sweden. There he continued to study botany and write books.
Joseph Lister (1827-1912)
Joseph Lister was born in 1827, in Essex, England. He was the son of a famous physicist. Lister was educated in Quaker schools, although he later joined the Scottish Episcopal Church. He attended college in London and Edinburgh, and received a degree in Medicine in 1852. After graduation, he worked in Scotland as a surgeon. At that time, almost half of the patients that successfully underwent major surgery ended up dying from infection (usually sepsis). The popular theory was that exposing moist wounds to air caused sepsis. During the early 1860s, 45-50% of Lister’s amputation cases died from infection. After experimenting with different unsuccessful prevention methods, Lister formulated the idea that infection was caused by a sort of “disease dust”, rather than by the air itself. He realized the relationship between Louis Pasteur’s germ discoveries and what was happening in the hospitals.
Lister began to use a carbolic acid solution to cleanse wounds and equipment. Although carbolic acid was hard on people’s skin and bodies, it was a successful method of preventing infection. In 1867, Lister informed the British Medical Association that his hospital ward had been free of sepsis for nine months. During the 1870s, the Germans adopted his antiseptic (from “anti-sepsis”) methods during the Franco-Prussian war, with good results. However, British and American doctors opposed Lister’s germ theory. Lister eventually won the debate by using antiseptic methods to successfully perform surgery that had usually resulted in death. After Lister’s methods gained popularity, the post-surgery deaths from infection went from around 50% to less than 5%.
Lister was made a baron in 1887. In 1891 he established the Institute of Preventive Medicine. He died in 1912.
James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879)
James Clerk Maxwell was a Scottish scientist and mathematician. He was born in Edinburgh in November of 1831, but at a young age he moved with his family to their country estate of Glenlair. There he exhibited curiosity about everything–he was constantly asking to be shown “how it doos”. He had an unsuccessful experience with a tutor, so he attended the Edinburgh academy. There he did well, winning prizes not only in mathematics but in English verse as well. At the age of 14, he wrote a paper on the mathematics of ovals that was read by the scientific Royal Society of Edinburgh.
Maxwell continued his education at Cambridge, where he attended Trinity college. He graduated with a degree in mathematics in 1854 and received a fellowship. In the next couple years, he worked out a mathematical formulation of Michael Faraday’s electricity and magnetism theories.
In 1856 Maxwell moved back to Scotland and took a position at a college in Aberdeen. He had been interested in Saturn’s rings earlier, so when he learned that the subject for the 1857 Adam’s Prize dealt with that, he decided to compete. In his paper (which won the award), he showed that Saturn’s rings could be stable only if they consisted of numerous small solid particles.
Maxwell married Katherine Mary Dewar in 1859. The next year they moved to London, where he taught at King’s College and continued his scientific research. He suggested that light is an electromagnetic phenomenon, work that would later lay the foundation for Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. He also developed independently of Ludwig Boltzmann what came to be known as the Maxwell-Boltzmann kinetic theory of gases, showing that only the movement of molecules was involved in temperature and heat.
Between 1865 and 1871 (when he accepted a position at Cambridge) Maxwell resided at his Scottish estate of Glenlair. There he did most of the work for his book Electricity and Magnetism. In it he developed mathematical equations to express the behavior of electric and magnetic fields, considered to be one of the great physics achievements of the century.
The impact of Maxwell’s work extends much further than just mathematical equations and physics theories: he affected engineering, communications, nuclear energy, and even photography. To read some of Maxwell’s poetry, go here.
Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727)
According to an older calendar, Isaac Newton was born on Christmas Day, 1642; but when adjusted to fit the new Gregorian calendar which England adopted a decade later, the birth date ends up being January 4, 1643. Newton entered Trinity College, Cambridge in 1661, later in age than most university students. The school closed down due to a plague epidemic shortly after he received his Bachelor’s degree, so he returned to his home in Lincolnshire.
In the following two years, Newton began research in physics and in calculus, which he was apparently the first to develop. However, he did not publish until later, after Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz had independently discovered the same things and published his findings. When the school reopened, Newton returned for a Master’s degree and a fellowship.
There he began a brilliant career in scientific research and theory. He demonstrated that white light is made up of rays that produce a different-colored spectrum when refracted through a prism. (Earlier scientists had thought that white light was a single entity.) In 1704, after the death of his rival Robert Hooke (another famous scientist), he published Opticks. During this time, he developed his three laws of motion and in 1687 wrote his most famous work, the Principia. Among other things, the book dealt with explaining planetary motion and tides using his Universal Law of Gravitation.
Newton was born under the Parliamentary Commonwealth, and lived during the very different reigns of Charles II, James II, William and Mary, Queen Anne (last of the Stuarts), and George I (of the House of Hanover). After Newton’s defense of the university against James II’s policies, Cambridge elected him to the Parliament that offered the crown to William and Mary. Afterwards he was made Master of the Mint, a position which made him rich but that he also took seriously. During the reign of Queen Anne, Newton was president of the prestigious scientific group called the Royal Society. He was also knighted by the Queen, an unprecedented honor for an English scientist.
In summing up Newton’s work, Alexander Pope says it best in this couplet that he wrote in Newton’s honor: “Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night; God said, Let Newton be! and all was light.”
Louis Pasteur (1822-1895)
Louis Pasteur, perhaps one of the most famous scientists of all time, was born in France on December 27, 1822. Although he was talented as an artist, he decided to pursue science instead. He received a Bachelor of Science degree in 1842 and went on to study chemistry in Paris, receiving his Master of Science in 1845 and his doctorate two years later. Afterwards, he taught and did research in Strasbourg and Dijon; in Strasbourg, he married Marie Laurent, the University Rector’s daughter.
Pasteur’s first major discovery was that tartaric acid rotated polarized light, whereas paratartaric acid did not. Upon further experimentation, he showed that paratartaric acid was made up of equal numbers of asymmetrical crystals. Half of the crystals rotated the light to the right and half to the left; combined, the effects of crystals cancelled each other out, resulting in no light rotation. This discovery was important because it proved that two molecules could have the same chemical makeup and yet have different and unique physical properties, such as crystalline structures. We now know that chemicals with the same chemical formula can have a different molecular structure and different physical properties. These chemicals are called isomers.
After his work with crystals, Pasteur was asked to help solve a big economic problem for France: what caused batches of wine, beer, and vinegar to sometimes be ruined. Pasteur discovered that microbes, tiny organisms which got into the alcohol, could spoil the product. To fix this, he heated the drink to a temperature which would kill some of the microorganisms without ruining the taste of the product. This process, which is now used with many different foods, is called pasteurization in Louis’s honor.
Another of Pasteur’s famous experiments was in rebuttal of the theory of spontaneous generation, an ancient idea that some life forms came from non-living things. (Maggots, for example, were believed to spring from meat.) This theory had been disproved by the time of Pasteur, but some scientists still believed that really small organisms sprang from non-living matter. Pasteur used a simple but elegant experiment to demonstrate that microbes travel through the air. He put fermentable liquid in a flask, pasteurized it, and then heated the neck of the flask so that he could stretch and bend it downward. Any dust that traveled in the air was trapped in the swan-shaped neck of the flask, but the air itself could travel into the flask. Since any microbes were stopped with the dust in the neck of the bottle, the liquid would remain sterile forever.
Pasteur also helped another important French industry. The Department of Agriculture asked him to find out how to stop the spread of disease that was killing off silkworms and damaging the silk industry. Pasteur taught the silkworm farmers how to detect infected worms, using a microscope. The infected worms were destroyed or kept from breeding, preventing the spread of disease.
Another problem at this time was anthrax in sheep and cattle. Pasteur discovered that a weakened strain of the disease could be injected into an animal and cause immunity against fatal strains of anthrax. This vaccination process worked well with sheep and cattle, but could it save human lives? Pasteur began doing research to develop a vaccine for rabies, a fatal virus that affects the nervous and respiratory systems and is passed on to humans through animal bites.
The big test of Pasteur’s rabies vaccine came in the summer of 1885, when a boy named Joseph Meister was brought to him for treatment. Rabies can incubate for 1-3 months before any signs of illness begin, thus allowing some time between catching the virus and being harmfully affected by it. Meister was taken to Pasteur as soon as he was bitten by a rabid dog, and the treatment was successful; Meister lived to be an old man. Soon after, Pasteur successfully vaccinated a bitten shepherd, and his fame began to spread. People infected with rabies began to pour in for treatment. The Pasteur Institute was founded in Paris to treat rabies, and later branches of it were built in other parts of the world.
All of these experiments and studies led to the formation of Pasteur’s germ theory of disease: that tiny microbes carried infection. In England, Joseph Lister was convinced by Pasteur’s work, and developed his own antiseptic methods to prevent infection in surgery patients.
Louis Pasteur suffered several strokes and partial paralysis during the later years of his life, although he continued to do some laboratory work. He died in 1895, a national hero in France.
John Ray (1627-1705)
John Ray, the great botanist, zoologist, and theologian, was born in Essex, England in 1627. As a young man, he studied languages, mathematics, and natural science at Cambridge University. In 1649 he became a fellow at Cambridge and in 1651 began giving college lectures in math and language. In 1660, he was ordained as an Anglican minister. Ray refused to agree to the 1662 Act of Uniformity–an act which required all Church of England ministers to support the Book of Common Prayer and other articles of worship–and in consequence he lost his position at Cambridge. However, his scientific studies were well-noted in England during his lifetime.
During the 1660s, Ray traveled through England and Europe, collecting and studying plants, animals, and rocks. His first book was published in 1660. Throughout the rest of his life, Ray wrote books about plants, animals, and fossils, as well as a dictionary of unusual English dialectal words and some theological works.
Among his notable achievements in botany, John Ray proved that the wood of living trees conducts water. He also developed a better plant classification system, based on a variety of features of the plant rather than just its petals. He was the first to separate flowering plants into either monocot or dicot.
Pietro Angelo Secchi (1818-1878)
Father Angelo Secchi was a Jesuit (a type of Roman Catholic) priest and astrophysicist who spent years studying the light from thousands of stars. He was born in Emilia, Italy and educated by the Jesuits in liberal arts, science, and theology. He had such a gift for science that he was made a professor of physics at the Jesuit College when he was only twenty-three years old.
In 1850, Secchi became the director of the observatory in the Roman College. From this observatory he created the first star classification system that used a star’s light spectrum. When light passes through a prism, it is split into its individual colors which show up in a band of colors (like a rainbow) called a spectrum. (The plural form is “spectra.”) In the early 1800s, a scientist named Joseph Fraunhofer attached a prism to a telescope and looked at the spectra of the sun and other stars. Later, Gustav Kirchhoff and Robert Bunsen discovered that every chemical element produces a different spectrum when heated. Astronomers realized that by studying the spectra of stars, they could discover what elements stars were made of. Imagine that—they could find out the parts of something millions of miles away!
Secchi used these discoveries to analyze the spectra of over 4,000 stars. As he worked, he became convinced that there were different types of stars and that they could be grouped together in categories defined by what their spectra looked like. Secchi’s five categories have since been replaced with seven more precise categories, but stars are still classified today using their spectra. (Click here to see four of the five different types of spectra that Secchi identified.)
The classification of stars was not Secchi’s only interest. He studied sunspots and solar prominences, photographed a total solar eclipse, and cataloged thousands of double stars. He was also interested in meteorology and physics, and invented a tool called a Secchi disk for measuring water transparency, which is still used today.
George Gabriel Stokes, 1819-1903
George Gabriel Stokes was an accomplished British mathematician in the 19th Century, but throughout his career, he emphasized the importance of experimentation and problem solving rather than focusing solely on mathematics. By experimenting and applying mathematics to physics, Stokes came up with a law that describes the movement of a solid through a liquid or a gas. Known as Stoke’s Law, this law of viscosity established the science of hydrodynamics. Stoke’s Law explains cloud motion, wave motion, and the resistance of water to ship movement.
Most of Stoke’s work revolved around waves (sound, light, and water) and how they move through various mediums, such as water and gas. He experimented with how wind affects the intensity of a sound and how the intensity is influenced by the type of gas the sound waves travel through. He named and explained fluorescence and investigated the wave theory of light. He also worked on understanding the different colored bands that could be seen in a spectrum and made significant contributions to what we know about light and optics.
Stokes is often compared to Sir Isaac Newton because there are numerous parallels between Stoke’s life and Newton’s life: both had breakthrough discoveries, developed laws of motion, investigated light and optics, held the same prestigious Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge, and served in Parliament.
Antony van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723)
Antony van Leeuwenhoek has often been hailed as the “inventor of the microscope.” The compound microscope was actually invented in the late 1500s, well before Leeuwenhoek was born. However, this man, who only received an elementary education and was never formally a scientist, used his own handmade simple microscopes to make amazing discoveries and observations.
Leeuwenhoek was born in 1632, in Delft, Holland, where he later become a draper (a seller of fabric). In the late 1660s, he read the scientist Robert Hooke’s book on microscopic life, and was apparently inspired by what he learned there. Sometime around 1668, he began to grind his own lenses and make simple microscopes. Each microscope was really a powerful magnifying glass rather than a compound microscope, which has more than one lens. Due to poor lens quality and other issues, the early compound microscopes could only magnify an object up to 20 or 30 times its normal size. Leeuwenhoek’s hand-ground lenses could magnify an object up to 200 times! Leeuwenhoek took careful notes about what he observed, and because he was unskilled at drawing he hired an illustrator to draw the specimens that he described.
Among hundreds of other things, Leeuwenhoek observed animal and plant tissue, sperm cells and blood cells, minerals, and fossils. He also discovered nematodes and rotifers (microscopic animals), and he discovered bacteria while looking at different samples of plaque from his own and others’ teeth.
He corresponded with the Royal Society in London, sharing his findings in Dutch, which was then translated into English or Latin (the scholarly language of the day) so that his British audience could understand. His letters were published and he became famous during his lifetime. In 1680, he was elected a member of the Royal Society, even though he never attended a meeting.
Leeuwenhoek lived in the same town as the famous Dutch painter, Jan Vermeer, and was appointed as executor of his estate in 1676. Some people have speculated that Leeuwenhoek posed as the model in Vermeer’s The Geographer and perhaps in The Astronomer as well.
Wernher Von Braun (1912-1977)
Perhaps you’ve heard of rocket scientist Wernher Von Braun in a science magazine, a history of rocketry, or even in the movie October Sky. Von Braun lived a life filled with adventure–working for the German military during the second world war, escaping to America, and working on the rockets that launched the Apollo series.
Wernher Von Braun was born in Wirsitz, Germany, in 1912, the son of a baron and baroness. He was interested in science throughout his childhood, and in his early teenage years he discovered what was to be a life-long fascination: rocketry and space travel. In 1932, at the age of twenty, Von Braun received his bachelor’s degree and then in 1934 he received a PhD in physics from the University of Berlin.
During the 1930s, Von Braun worked for the German military, building and testing rockets. He led the team that worked on the V-2 combat rocket for Adolph Hitler. Toward the end of the war, he was arrested for the “crime” of saying that rockets could be built that would orbit the earth and land on the moon. He was released so that he could finish the V-2, but Von Braun had different plans: he decided to surrender to the Americans. He used forged papers to steal a train and lead about 500 people, including the other engineers who were involved in the V-2 project, across Germany to find the American troops–evading their own soldiers on the way.
In June of 1945, the U.S. Secretary of State gave his approval for Von Braun and the other scientists (more than 100) who had escaped with him to come to America. They carried on their work at a military station in Texas–“prisoners of peace” who couldn’t leave without an escort.
After that time, Von Braun sent a marriage proposal to his cousin, Maria von Quistorp. They were married in 1947 and their first child was born the following year. In 1955, Von Braun became a naturalized U.S. citizen.
During the 1950s Von Braun worked with Walt Disney to try to increase interest in space programs; he directed the Development Operations Division of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency; and he worked on the Jupiter-C rocket which launched the Explorer 1 satellite in 1958. Soon after NASA was started in 1959, Von Braun and his team were transferred to one of its divisions, the Marshall Space Flight Center. While he was there he helped develop the Saturn rockets, one of which launched the crew of Apollo 11 to the Moon in 1969.
Von Braun retired from NASA in 1972, although he continued to promote space flight. He died of cancer in 1977.