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Edinburgh University Library Special Collections Division

Papers of Joseph Black

Collection Summary

Reference Code

GB 0237 Joseph Black



Extent and medium of the unit of description

2 metres

(5 boxes, 27 volumes )

Existence and Location of Originals

This material is original.

Name of creator

Black | Joseph | 1728-1799 | professor of chemistry, University of Edinburgh

Biographical History

Biographical History

Joseph Black (1728-1799) is credited with several major contributions to Chemical Science. He discovered that 'fixed air', or carbon dioxide as we now know it, is a product of respiration, the burning of charcoal, and fermentation; that it behaves as an acid; and that it is probably found in the atmosphere. He also performed quantitative experiments and was one of the first scientists to emphasise the importance of quantitative measurements in chemistry. His third important contribution was the invention of calorimetry, the first accurate method of measuring heat, and the device itself, the calorimeter. He thus laid the foundations of modern thermal science, and influenced James Watt (1736-1819) in the development of the steam engine.

Joseph Black was born in Bordeaux, France, the son of a Scots-Irish wine merchant. He was educated in Belfast and then studied medicine and natural sciences at the University of Glasgow where his chemistry instructor was William Cullen (1710-1790), and in whose laboratory he worked for three years. In 1751 Black transferred his medical studies to the University of Edinburgh, which boasted on its medical faculty the great anatomist Alexander Monro (1733-1817), the physiologist Robert Whytt (1714-1766), and Charles Alston (1683-1760), a botanist and chemist. In 1756 he succeeded Cullen as Lecturer in Chemistry at the University of Glasgow and was also appointed Professor of Anatomy, later on exchanging to the Chair of Medicine. Black also practised as a physician. Through his investigation of the heating of magnesium carbonate, he anticipated the findings of Antoine Laurent Lavoisier (1743-1794), and indeed of modern chemistry, by indicating the existence of the gas carbon dioxide as distinct from common air. An account of his studies was published in Experiments upon magnesia alba, quicklime, and some other alkaline substances , (1756). From 1766 until 1799, Black was Professor of Chemistry at the University of Edinburgh. He died in Edinburgh on 10 November 1799. His lecture notes, supplemented by those of his pupils, were written and published posthumously by John Robison (1739-1805) as Lectures on the elements of chemistry, delivered at the University of Edinburgh (1803).

From 1756-1766 Joseph Black was Professor of Anatomy and Lecturer in Chemistry at the University of Glasgow. From 1766-1799 Black was Professor of Chemistry at the University of Edinburgh. In 1767 he was made a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, Edinburgh. In 1788 he became President of the Royal College of Physicians.

Scope and Content

Scope and Content

The papers of Joseph Black consist of:

  • 5 boxes of correspondence between himself and a variety of individuals (including James Watt, Prince Paul Dashkov, John Robison) and on a variety of subjects: linen bleaching, use of lime water, assays of ores, civic water supply, mineralogical specimens, absorption of heat etc
  • 1 box of family letters between Black, his father and his brothers Samuel, George and Thomas
  • manuscript copies of Black's chemistry lectures
  • volumes of lecture notes taken by his university students




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