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Draper, John William

Draper, John William

(b. St. Helens, Lancashire, England, 5 May 1811; d. Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, 4 January 1882)

chemistry, history.

Draper was the son of an itinerant Methodist preacher who possessed a Gregorian telescope and who evidently encouraged the boy’s scientific interests. The father had purchased two shares in the new London University intended to accommodate scientists, workingmen, and Dissenters, but he died before his son commenced his premedical studies at University College (as it later became) in 1829. There Draper studied chemistry under Edward Turner, an admirer of Berzelius and the author of one of the earliest English textbooks in organic chemistry. Turner interested Draper in the chemical effects of light and thereby gave his career a decisive turn. At a time when Parliament had not yet broken the monopoly of Oxford and Cambridge for granting degrees, Draper had to be contented with a “certificate of honours” in chemistry.

On the urging of maternal relatives, who had gone to America before the Revolution to found a Wesleyan community, Draper immigrated with his mother, his three sisters, and his new wife to Virginia in 1832. He had already collaborated on three minor scientific publications before leaving England and now published eight additional papers between 1834 and 1836 from what he ambitiously described as his “laboratory” in the family farmhouse. The earnings of his sister Dorothy Catharine as a schoolteacher enabled him to take his medical degree at the University of Pennsylvania in 1836. His thesis, “Glandular Action,” reflected the interest of his teacher J. K. Mitchell in the researches of Dutrochet on osmosis. His other principal instructor was Robert Hare.

On his return to Virginia, Draper was engaged as chemist and mineralogist to the newly formed Mineralogical Society of Virginia, which had been inspired by the writings of the celebrated pioneer of scientific agriculture in America, the Virginian Edmund Ruffin. A projected school of mineralogy never materialized, but many of the projectors were trustees of Hampden-Sidney College, where Draper served as professor of chemistry and natural philosophy from 1836 to 1839. From 1839 until his death, he was professor of chemistry in the college of New York University. He was also a founding proprietor, in 1841, of the tenuously connected New York University School of Medicine, of which he served as president from 1850. Under his inspiration, the university proper granted the degree of doctor of philosophy five times between 1867 and 1872, to students who had a bachelor’s degree in arts or science or a medical degree and had then completed two further years of study in chemistry. This appears to be one of the two earliest attempts in the United States to establish the Ph.D. as a graduate degree. The enterprise petered out with Draper’s own advancing years. His other principal institutional exertions were as first president of the American Union Academy of Literature, Science and Art, founded in 1869 as a riposte to the creation of the National Academy of Sciences in 1863. Draper had unaccountably been omitted from the original incorporators of the latter, and the omission was not repaired until 1877. He was, however, elected first president of the American Chemical Society in 1876.

Draper first achieved wide celebrity for his pioneering work in photography. As early as 1837, while still in Virginia, he had followed the example of Wedgwood and Davy in making temporary copies of objects by the action of light on sensitized surfaces. When the details of Daguerre’s process for fixing camera images were published in various New York newspapers on 20 September 1839, Draper was ready for the greatest remaining challenge, to take a photographic portrait. A New York mechanic, Alexander S. Wolcott, apparently won the race by 7 October. But if Draper knew of this, he persisted in his own experiments and succeeded in taking a portrait not later than December 1839. His communication to the Philosophical Magazine, dated 31 March 1840, was the first report received in Europe of any photographer’s success in portraiture. The superb likeness of his sister Dorothy Catharine, taken not later than July 1840, with an exposure of sixty-five seconds, seems to be the oldest surviving photographic portrait.

In the busy winter of 1839–1840, Draper also took the first photograph of the moon and launched, in a very modest way, the age of astronomical photography. He obtained “distinct” representations of the dark spots or lunar maria. He first announced his success to the New York Lyceum of Natural History on 23 March 1840. Fittingly enough, Draper’s second son, Henry, became one of the most distinguished astronomical photographers of the nineteenth century. As early as 1850, when Henry was thirteen, Draper enlisted his aid in photographing slides through a microscope to illustrate a projected textbook, Human Physiology (1856). In the book they appear as engravings, but the elder Draper was one of the first, if not the very first, to conceive of and execute microphotographs.

Draper’s grasp of the uses to which photography could be put and his ingenuity in accomplishing the requisite feats made him a technical innovator of considerable importance; but this was merely incidental to a much deeper concern with the chemical effects of radiant energy in general. By his researches in this field, Draper became easily one of the dozen most important contributors to basic science in the United States before 1870.

He enunciated in 1841 the principle that only absorbed rays produce chemical change—long known as Draper’s law but eventually rechristened the Grotthuss or Grotthuss–Draper law from its formulation by the German C. J. D. Grotthuss in 1817. Grotthuss’ statement attracted no attention until the close of the nineteenth century, by which time the principle had become well established under Draper’s (entirely independent) auspices. In 1843 Draper constructed a “tithonometer,” or device for measuring the intensity of light, based on the discovery by Gay-Lussac and Thénard in 1809 that light causes hydrogen and chlorine to combine progressively. The seminal work in this field remained to be done by Bunsen and Roscoe from the mid-1850’s onward. Their “actinometer,” built after they had rejected Draper’s instrument as inaccurate, made use of the identical phenomenon.

With a grating ruled for him by the mechanician of the United States Mint, Joseph Saxton, Draper took, in 1844, what seems to have been the first photograph of the diffraction spectrum. Apparently he was also the first to take with any precision a photograph of the infrared region, and the first to describe three great Fraunhofer lines there (1843). He also photographed lines in the ultraviolet independently of Edmond Becquerel and at about the same time.

In one of his most important memoirs (1847), he proved that all solid substances become incandescent at the same temperature, that thereafter with rising temperature they emit rays of increasing refrangibility, and (a fundamental proposition of astrophysics, later elaborated upon by Kirchhoff) that incandescent solids produce a continuous spectrum. Draper implied in the mid-1840’s and stated clearly in 1857 that the maxima of luminosity and of heat in the spectrum coincide. For the sum of his researches on radiant energy, Draper received the Rumford Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1875).

By the mid-1850’s Draper had become acquainted, directly or indirectly, with the positivism of Auguste Comte and had embraced Comte’s law of the three stages of historical development, from the theological through the metaphysical to the “positive,” or scientific. Comte had argued for a parallel development of the individual personality from infancy to maturity. Where Draper sharply diverged from Comte was in postulating that the history of mankind had consisted in a succession of dominant nations or cultures, regarded as biological organisms experiencing decrepitude and death as well as birth and development. With this cyclical theory of history, entirely alien to Comte, Draper combined a passionate espousal of environmentalism.

The principal work in which all these notes sounded together was A History of the Intellectual Development of Europe (1863). Draper says, however, that the book was sketched by 1856 and completed by 1858. The suspicion that he had been influenced by either Buckle or Darwin is unfounded. Yet he undoubtedly profited from the vogue of both men and blandly assimilated himself to Darwinism whenever he could. Thus he spruced up his totally unamended views on history for the British Association for the Advancement of Science at Oxford in 1860, under the provocative but fraudulent title “On the Intellectual Development of Europe, Considered With Reference to the Views of Mr. Darwin and Others, That the Progression of Organisms Is Determined by Law.” This unprofitable paper was the direct occasion for the famous exchange between Bishop Wilberforce and T. H. Huxley. From this time forward, Draper was regarded as a valiant defender of science against religion. His most popular book, widely read in many translations, was a History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science (1874), a vigorous polemic against the persecution of scientists by religionists.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

I. Original Works. Draper’s works include A Treatise on the Forces Which Produce the Organization of Plants (New York, 1844); Human Physiology, Statical and Dynamical; or, The Conditions and Course of the Life of Man (New York, 1856); A History of the Intellectual Development of Europe (New York, 1863); Thoughts on the Future Civil Policy of America (New York, 1865); History of the American Civil War, 3 vols. (New York, 1867–1870); History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science (New York, 1874); and Scientific Memoirs, Being Experimental Contributions to a Knowledge of Radiant Energy (New York, 1878).

II. Secondary Literature. See Donald Fleming, John William Draper and the Religion of Science (Philadelphia, 1950), which has an extensive bibliography.

Donald Fleming

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"Draper, John William." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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John William Draper

John William Draper

The Anglo-American scientist and historian John William Draper (1811-1882) pioneered in scientific applications of photography and popularized a "scientific" approach to social and intellectual history.

John William Draper was born near Liverpool, England, on May 5, 1811. He did premedical studies at University College, London. In 1832 Draper, his wife, mother, and sisters sailed to America.

Settling in Mecklenburg County, Va., Draper began scientific research in his own laboratory. He experimented in capillary attraction and published on a variety of scientific subjects. He completed his medical studies at the University of Pennsylvania in 1836, then returned to Virginia to become professor of chemistry and natural philosophy at Hampden-Sidney College. He contributed to British and American scholarly journals. In 1838 he was appointed professor of chemistry and botany at the University of the City of New York.

Draper's career as a research scientist flowered from 1839 to 1856. His earliest important project involved him in a race with Samuel F. B. Morse to be the first in America to apply the photographic technique of the French inventor Louis Daguerre to portraiture. In solving these problems Draper developed expansive notions about the uses of photography in scientific investigation. A brilliant experimentalist, he was especially important for outlining the scientific applications of photography. He pioneered in expanding beyond both extremes of the visible spectrum with photographic techniques and was a founder of the theory of photochemical absorption.

Draper helped establish the medical school of the University of the City of New York and became its president in 1850. His Human Physiology (1856) marked the end of his scientific career.

Draper's second career—in history and social analysis—grew out of his first. He believed in the possibility of progress through science and technology and wrote about history and society with the conviction that a "scientific" approach to society was desirable. His History of the Intellectual Development of Europe (1863) traced the history of Western thought. Thoughts on the Future Civil Policy of America (1865) and a three-volume History of the American Civil War (1867-1870), the first serious history of the war, followed. His last major work, History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874), was a condensation of his 1863 book.

Convinced that nature was the compulsive force behind history, Draper in his version of environmental determinism emphasized climate. Although his histories are seriously defective, he was a pioneer in the history of ideas. After his death on Jan. 4, 1882, Draper's reputation as a scientist diminished while his fame as a historian flourished.

Further Reading

Donald H. Fleming, John William Draper and the Religion of Science (1950), is an excellent biography. For background material see Nathan Reingold, ed., Science in Nineteenth-Century America (1964), and Howard S. Miller, Pursuit of Science in Nineteenth Century America (1969). □

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Draper, John William

John William Draper, 1811–82, American scientist, philosopher, and historian, b. near Liverpool, England, M.D. Univ. of Pennsylvania, 1836. In 1839 he became professor of chemistry at the Univ. of the City of New York. He helped organize the medical school of the university, became its professor of chemistry and physiology, and in 1850 succeeded as its president.

Draper's chief contribution to abstract science was research in radiant energy. His work on the spectra of incandescent substances foreshadowed the development of spectrum analysis, in which his son Henry Draper became a pioneer. Draper's research in the effect of light upon chemicals led him to take up photography. He was said to be the first in New York to use Daguerre's process, announced in 1839, improving it so much that by December of that year he made his first satisfactory photographic portrait. A picture he took (1840) of his sister is the oldest surviving photographic portrait. Draper also made (1839–40) the first photographs of the moon.

Most of his papers on radiant energy were republished in his Scientific Memoirs (1878). His Human Physiology (1856) was the leading textbook of the period in its field, and it contained his own admirable micro-photographs, the first ever published. In 1863 his History of the Intellectual Development of Europe was published, and in 1874 his History of the Conflict between Religion and Science, a rationalistic classic that aroused great controversy. His other works include History of the American Civil War (3 vol., 1867–70) and Thoughts on the Future Civil Policy of America (1865).

See study by D. H. Fleming (1950, repr. 1972).



His son, Henry Draper, 1837–82, was a physician by vocation, but he made major contributions in the field of astronomical photography and spectroscopy. He was the first to photograph stellar spectral lines.

See biography by G. F. Barker in National Academy of Sciences, Biographical Memoirs, Vol. III (1895).

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Ritchie, William

Ritchie, William (1781–1831). Founder of the Scotsman. Ritchie was a solicitor from Fife. In 1817, irritated by the refusal of the Edinburgh papers to print his criticisms of the Royal Infirmary, he joined with Charles Maclaren and others to launch the Scotsman. It began as a weekly, became bi-weekly in 1823, and was first issued as a daily in 1855. His elder brother John (1778–1870) began life as a weaver and draper, but took over the paper after William's death and became sole proprietor.

J. A. Cannon

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