(b Colloney, County Sligo, Ireland, 1762 or 1763; d Dublin, Ireland, 30 June [?] 1825)
Known chiefly for his speculative ideas on chemical combination, William Higgins is of greater interest for the insights his life offers into the emergence of chemistry as a career during the British industrial revolution. His biography thus complements that of his uncle, Bryan Higgins, the London physician and entrepreneur in technical information and pure research. William plainly lacked his kinsman’s social graces. Despite an evident charm, his erratic bachelor behavior and tendency to indulge personal animosities prevented him from engaging the affections of London society. Instead he found refuge in a succession of government-supported chemical positions in Dublin. Thanks to the combination of such scientific opportunities with family resources, he became a comparatively rich man.
The O’Higgins clan was prominent in Country Sligo from medieval times. With the decline of the bardic art many of its members turned to medicine. William was apparently the second child and younger son of Thomas Higgins, a Physician educated at (although not graduated from) the University of Edinburgh. Nothing is known of Higgins’ early education. While still a boy he was sent to London to live with his uncle. Under the latter’s guidance he developed a strong taste for, and considerable expertise in, experimental chemistry.
In the early 1780’s Higgins assisted in making all the experiments detailed in Bryan Higgins’ Experiments and Observations Relating to Acetous Acid.... In 1785 he undertook a mineralogical tour through England, also visiting a number of chemical manufactories. On 6 February 1786 he matriculated at Magdalen Hall, Oxford. A year later he transferred to Pembroke College, whose master, William Adams, was “considerably deep in chemistry.” Among undergraduate contemporaries and active enthusiasts for natural knowledge were Davies Gilbert, future president of the Royal Society, and James Haworth, subsequently physician to St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, with whom Higgins was intimately acquainted. Older friends included William Austin, professor of chemistry for a brief interlude; Martin Wall, the reader in chemistry; and Thomas Beddoes, who was Wall’s successor for four stormy years. The existence of a group of such caliber indicates how tales of Oxford’s scientific torpor at this time must be treated with reserve.
Higgins’ initial access to and easy familiarity with these men owed much to the connections and influence of his uncle. That his own considerable chemical abilities and enthusiasm were also important may be seen in his acting as “operator” to the reader and carrying out experiments in a laboratory in the basement of the Ashmolean Museu. Despite such promising circumstances and acquaintances, Higgins abruptly left Oxford without a degree in the summer of 1788. His next four years were spent in London, where he published two editions of his most important work, the comparative View of Phlogistic and Anti-Phlogistic Theories (1798, 1791). He also experimented with printing on linen and quarreled with his uncle. The two events in combination secured his interest in a fresh sphere of activity, as chemist in the new hall of the government-supported Irish Corporation of Apothecaries. The influence of Richard Kirwan (also an Irishman, Catholic, chemist, and fromer London resident and in addition a man of considerable means) was probably decisive on his behalf in this, as in other, appointments.
Higgins took up his position in Dublin in March 1792. He enjoyed the generous salary of “£200 a year, apartments, coals and candles.” In contrast, the apothecary to the hall was paid only £80. Higgins was soon busy equipping the laboratory, attending the Royal Irish Academy (and, with greater regularity, its dining club), and acting as part-time chemist to the Irish Linen Board. In September 1794 the apothecaries authorized him an assistant at £50 per annum. Unfortunately the corporation was discovered to be in serous financial difficulties early the following year. The ambitious post of chemist was abolished, and Higgins’ appointment terminated amid considerable acrimony.
Through the agency of Kirwan, Higgins was quickly reemployed as supervisor of the important Leskean cabinet of minerals recently acquired by the Royal Dublin Society. Succesive acts of the Irish Parliament confirmend his position as professor of chemistry to the Society. His salary rose from the initial £100 to £300 per annum, plus fees, by 1800. As professor Higgins conducted analyses on request, lectured to both the public and the Society, and had charge of a laboratory specially equipped to encourage his experiments on dyeing materials and other articles, wherein chemistry were £643 14s. 6d. These costs were defrayed mainly from the parliamentary grant to the Society. Higgins was in effect, although not in name, once more a government-maintained chemist.
The state also provided the £100 per annum Higgins regularly received as chemist to the trustees of the Linen and Hempen Manufactures of Ireland. In this capacity he did much valuable work over the years. Immediate problems included the chemistry of bleaching (especially the new use of bleaching powder) and the detection of adulterants in commercial alkalies. Higgins traveled widely in Ireland to advise local blechers on their problems. His researches resulted in an important Essay on Bleaching (1799). Despite the obvious utility of, and widespread appreciation for, his services, the weakly institutionalized post of chemist to the Linen Board was abolished in due course as part of a general economy drive, like that at the Apothecaries’ Hall before it. The same 1820 retrenchment threatened, but did not eliminate, the positions of Higgins and his assistant at the Dublin Society. There were, of course, particular reasons why the Irish middle class should be especially favored by successive administrations. Even so, the existence and diversity of such state-funded positions as those enjoyed by Higgins point to a far richer involvement of the Hanoverian executive with the pursuit and implications of natural knowledge than is commonly supposed.
A further facet of government involvement with science is seen in Higgins’ 1803 leave of absence from the Dublin Society, which enabled him to sit on a London committee selecting a hydrometer to measure the strength of alcoholic spirits for revenue purposes. It was while in London that he met Humphry Davy, a protégé of his uncle and of his own mentor, Thomas Beddoes. Davy was one of Higgins’ proposers to the Royal Society in 1806. Higgins in turn was involved in arranging Davy’s highly lucrative 1810 addresses before the Dublin Society, the Farming Society, and the Linen Board. The relationship was to flourish for, from 1810 on, Davy vigorously promoted his new friend’s claims to the discovery of the chemical atomic theory over those of their common rival, John Dalton.
The work on which Higgins based his claims was the Comparative View. Actually, the book is an interesting, if verbose and poorly structured, attempt to contrast phlogistic and antiphlogistic chemistry, to the advantage of the latter. In it Higgins hit on the idea of using arbitrary affinity numbers to reinforce his arguments. It is this which gives the work its appeal. Higgins sought to elucidate the mechanisms of possible reactions between ultimate particles of, say, sulfur and oxygen, by using diagrams of the reacting particles and the affinity forces between them. Not surprisingly, his arguments do contain among their unstated assumptions ideas on combining proportions that were later to be made explicit in chemical atomic theory. In this they are typical of much existing thought. Yet far from displaying the same concerns that drove John Dalton, the Comparative View is important chiefly as a brilliant and highly individualistic exploitation of dominant Newtonian assumptions about the forces of chemical affinity.
It seems to have been Davy’s continuing desire to belittle Dalton’s theoretical achievement that induced Higgins to assert his own priority. Once aroused, he proved a belligerent antagonist. The later Observations on the Atomic Theory provides an exhaustive but unconvincing account of his claims. Dalton took little notice of the controversy, finding in Thomas Thomson a more than sufficient defender of his originality against the continuing deprecations of Higgins and Davy. The priority dispute has proved unusually hardy, perhaps because Irish honor is felt to be at stake. By 1960 J. R. Partington could list more than fifty contributors to the debate. Their continuing discussions should not be allowed to obscure other, more significant aspects of Higgins’ life.
I. Original Works. Higgins’ most important publications are A Comparative View of the Phlogistic and Anti–Phlogistic Theories. With Inductions. To Which Is Annexed an Analysis of the Human Calculus, With Observations on Its Origin, etc. (London, 1789; 2nd ed., 1791); An Essay on the Theory and Practice of Bleaching, Wherein the Sulphuret of Lime Is Recommended as a Substitute for Pot–Ash (Dublin–London, 1799); A Syllabus of a Course of Chemistry for the year 1802 (Dublin, 1801); and Experiments and Observations on the Atomic Theory, and Electrical Phenomena (Dublin, 1814).
II. Secondary Literature. The fundamental source for future work is J. R. Partington and T. S. Wheeler, Life and Work of William Higgins, Chemist (London, 1960). A mine of information on Higgins’ life, work, ideas, experiments, and acquaintances, it also includes photographic reproductions of the Comparative View (2nd ed.) and the Observations. Unfortunately it does not include a bibliography of either Higgins’ Publications or subsequent studies. For these (in incomplete forms), consult J. R. Partington, A History of Chemistry, III (London–New York, 1962), 736–749. Additional information on Higgins and his context may be gleaned from such works on Dublin as H. F. Berry, History of the Royal Dublin Society (London, 1915); and from biographical accounts of other chemists, such as beddoes and Kirwan. The background to Higgins’ ideas may be explored in A. Thackray, Atoms and Powers: An Essay on Newtonian Matter–Theory and the Development of Chemistry (Cambridge, Mass., 1970). J. W. van Spronsen, “William Higgins,” in Archives internationales d’histoire des sciences, 19 (1966), 74–77, is the most recent contribution to the literature on the priority dispute.
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