Daubeny, Charles Giles Bridle

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Daubeny, Charles Giles Bridle

(b. Stratton, Gloucestershire, England, 11 February 1795; d. Oxford, England, 13 December 1867)

chemistry, geology.

The younger son of Anglican clergyman James Daubeny and of Helena Daubeny, Charles followed the usual classical curriculum at Winchester College and Oxford (B.A. 1814, Chancellor’s Latin Essay Prize 1815). A desire to practice medicine led him to attend the university chemical lectures and to meet such Oxford men of science as William Buckland and John and William Conybeare. From 1815 to 1818 he studied medicine in Edinburgh and also attended Robert Jameson’s geological lectures. A tour through France preceded his return to a Lay Fellowship at Magdalen, where he graduated M.D. in 1821. Daubeny was active in medical practice until 1829, but his true interests found expression in his 1822 election to the Oxford chemistry professorship. In 1834 he added the chair of botany, and in 1840 that of rural economy. Elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1822, he was also a member of the Royal Irish Academy and a foreign associate of the Munich Academy of Science. He never married.

Daubeny carried out important research in chemistry, geology, and botany. He also worked vigorously in the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and in the 1840’s and 1850’s he campaigned to end Oxford’s neglect of science. His career well illustrates the growing nineteenth-century involvement of Anglican clerics and the ancient universities in science, and the way that the biological and earth sciences were at the focus of attention.

While in Edinburgh, Daubeny was actively engaged in geological debate. His French tour led first to the important letter “On the Volcanoes of the Auvergnes,” then to his masterly Description of Active and Extinct Volcanoes (1826). In the latter work he developed a chemical theory of volcanic action, which stated that such action results from penetration of water to the free alkali and alkaline earth metals supposed to exist beneath the earth’s crust. A similar theory had been entertained by Humphry Davy and Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac, but Daubeny was the first to develop it in detail and support it with massive factual evidence. In its dependence on chemical ideas the Description is typical of all of Daubeny’s work. It is no accident that the other book he is also remembered for is a warm defense of the chemical atomic theory, nor that his later botanical work (on the effect of soil condition on vegetation, and of light on plant life) was directly inspired by chemistry.

Daubeny was present at the 1831 founding meeting of the British Association and was instrumental in ensuring the success of its Oxford meeting the next year. Actively involved in arranging the 1836 Bristol meeting, he was vice-president at Oxford in 1847 and president at Cheltenham in 1856. His work for the reform of Oxford science teaching included not only many speeches, pamphlets, and articles but also the practical steps of rearranging and extending the university’s botanical garden and building a laboratory for Magdalen at his own expense. His will presented his considerable collection of scientific books, instruments, and specimens to the college, with an endowment for their upkeep.


I. Original Works. Daubeny’s major works are Description of Active and Extinct Volcanoes (London, 1826; 2nd ed., 1848); An Introduction to the Atomic Theory (London, 1831; supp., 1840; 2nd ed., 1850); and the literary and scientific essays collected as Miscellanies, 2 vols, (London, 1867).

II. Secondary Literature. A chronology of Daubeny’s life, a full bibliography, and much incidental information may be found in R. T. Günther, History of the Daubeny Laboratory (London, 1904). Useful obituaries are in Proceedings of the Royal Society, 17 (1868–1869), lxxiv-lxxx; and Report and Transactions of the Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Science, 2 (1867–1868), 303–308.

Arnold Thackray

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