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

Biographical Information

Occupation, Sphere of Activity

Joseph Black originally studied arts at the University of Glasgow. However, at his father's request, he switched to study chemistry under the tutelage of William Cullen, and became his assistant. In 1751 Black returned to Edinburgh to complete his medical training, and in 1754 he presented to the faculty his thesis which chiefly dealt with the subject of acidity of the stomach. In his thesis he upturned previous notions, by introducing quantitaive as well as qualitative analysis into chemistry, and demonstrated the presence of something he called 'fixed air', a gas distinct from air, and which French chemists later called 'carbonic acid gas'. In 1755 Black succeeded Cullen as Professor of medicine at the University of Glasgow, where he lectured on chemistry as well as medicine and it was during this professoriate that he made a further contribution to the advancement of science, namely the formulation of the doctrine of latent heat, calorimetry, the first accurate method of measuring heat, and the device itself, the calorimeter. This discovery was backed up by researches into the laws of boiling and evaporation, and it was these studies in particular which interested Joseph Black's friend and colleague James Watt, thus laying the foundations for the practical application of steam power.

In 1766, following William Cullen's retiral from the post, Black accepted the chair of chemistry and medicine at the University of Edinburgh, where his lectures continued to be appreciated and well-attended. He also toook a keen interest in industrial developments, in such fields as bleaching, brewing , glassworks, iron-making and furnace construction.


Other Significant Information

Notable publications:

Experiments Upon Magnesia Alba, Quicklime and Some Other Alcaline Substances. Essays and Observations Physical and Literary, 2, ( 1756)

Honours, Qualifications and Appointments

1767: Elected Fellow, Royal College of Physicians

1788: Appointed President, Royal College of Physicians


List of sources for the biographical information:

Gillispie, Charles Coulston, Dictionary of Scientific Biography, vol ii, (United States of America, Scribner's, 1972)

Peter McIntyre, The University Portraits: Joseph Black, (Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 1957)

Williams, Trevor I, A Biographical Dictionary of Scientists, (London, A and C Black, 1969)

Sir Alexander Grant, The Story of the University of Edinburgh, (London, Longhams, Green & Co, 1884)