(b. High Close Hall, Cumberland, England, 24 March 1711; d. Ormathwaite, Cumberland, England, 6 January 1800)
Except that he came of a family long settled in western Cumberland and apparently was apprenticed to a physician in Whitehaven some time before 1733, little is known of Brownrigg’s background and early life. He studied in London and later at Leiden, where he obtained his doctorate in medicine in 1737. He took up practice in Whitehaven and in 1741 married Mary Spedding, daughter of the steward of the Lowther estates.
Sir James Lowther owned the Whitehaven collieries and encouraged Brownrigg in his investigations into the damps arising in the mines, arranging for firedamp to be piped from the mines to Brownrigg’s laboratory as a source of heat. Brownrigg believed that a greater knowledge of these exhalations would help to decrease the mortality among miners; he also thought that there might be a connection between them and epidemic diseases, and that some would prove to be the same as the “elastic spirits” with which mineral waters were impregnated and to which the latter owed their properties. Four papers under the general heading “Of Damps” were communicated through Lowther to the Royal Society in 1741 and 1742, and led to Brownrigg’s being elected a fellow in May 1742.
An extract from these was published in the Philosophical Transactions for 1765, as an addendum to a paper (for which Brownrigg received the Copley Medal) in which he virtually showed that the gas which could be expelled from water from Pouhon and other mineral springs on heating, and the expulsion of which led to the precipitation of dissolved solids, was identical with the chokedamp (i.e., carbon dioxide) of the mines.
Further experiments and observations made, he says, at about the same time, but not presented until 1774, dealt in detail with the dependence of the solubility of calcareous earths and iron salts on the dissolved gas. In the meantime (as he acknowledged), papers on the solubility of these earths and salts had been given respectively by Cavendish (1767) and Timothy Lane (1769). He expressed the view “that the mephitic air and martial earth, contained in the Pouhon water, strongly attract each other, and uniting together, form a concrete soluble in water” (Philosophical Transactions, 1774, p. 363), that is, calcium and ferrous carbonates combine with water and carbon dioxide to form bicarbonates, which are soluble.
Brownrigg’s views on gases and his technique in handling them were an advance on those of Hales, and it seems not unjustifiable to claim a place for him in the direct line of British pneumatic chemists that includes Black, Cavendish, and Priestley. Particularly noteworthy is his opinion, contrary to that generally held in his day, that “two elastic fluids, altho’ they both possess a repulsive quality, may yet in their other qualities, differ as much as inelastic fluids are found to differ; as water, for example, differs from oil of vitriol” (Philosophical Transactions, 1765, p. 238).
Much of the other work of Brownrigg, a man of wide interests, merits attention; here we mention only his investigation, the first by a trained European scientist, of platinum, specimens of which had been brought to England in 1741 by his brother-in-law, Charles Wood. A more thorough and accurate examination of the metal was made during the next decade by Scheffer in Sweden and Lewis in England.
I. Original Works. Brownrigg wrote two treatises of contemporary importance, both showing evidence of a painstaking accumulation of facts and a profound grasp of the problems involved. The Art of Making Common Salt (London, 1748) advocated the extensive manufacture of salt by the evaporation of seawater at selected sites on the east coast of England, with a view to drastically decreasing its price (almost all of it was imported and heavily taxed). An abstract by William Watson appeared in Philosophical Transactions, 45 (1748), 351–372. Considerations on the Means of Preventing the Communication of Pestilential Contagion, and of Eradicating It in Infected Places (London, 1771) dealt with measures that Brownrigg thought should be adopted if the plague, which had appeared in Europe that year, should spread to Britain.
The papers to which reference has been made in the text are “Of Damps,” a series of four papers read 16 April 1741, 11 March 1742, 8 April 1742, 13 May 1742; the first was entitled “Some Observations Upon the Several Damps in the Coal Mines Near Whitehaven” and the others dealt, respectively, with the possible relations of these damps to epidemics, mineral waters, and the nature of common air. They were never published as a whole, but the MSS are preserved in the archives of the Royal Society. The other papers are “Several Papers Concerning a New Semi-metal Called Platina,” in Philosophical Transactions, 46 (1749/1750), 584–596; “An Experimental Inquiry Into the Mineral Elastic Spirit, or Air, Contained in Spa Water; as Well as Into the Mephitic Qualities of That Spirit,” ibid., 55 (1765), 218–235, the extract from “Of Damps” following on 236–243; and “Continuation of an Experimental Inquiry, Concerning the Nature of the Mineral Elastic Spirit or Air Contained in the Pouhon Water, and Other Acidulae,” ibid., 64 (1774), 357–371.
II. Secondary Literature. The contemporary biography by Joshua Dixon, his pupil, is eulogistic but invaluable: The Literary Life of William Brownrigg, M.D., F.R.S., to Which is Added an Account of the Coal Mines Near Whitehaven (London, 1801). J. Russel-Wood, in Annals of Science, 6 (1950), 186–196, 436–447; 7 (1951), 77–94, 199–206, gives a biographical sketch and discusses Brownrigg’s published and unpublished work. J. McDonald, A History of Platinum From the Earliest Times to the Eighteen-eighties (London, 1960), appraises the work of Brownrigg, Scheffer, and Lewis, inter alia, on platinum.
E. L. Scott