Fownes, George

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Fownes, George

(b, London, England, 14 May 1815; d. Brompton, England, 31 January 1849)


Fownes worked in his father’s glove business until 1837, when he began to study science with Thomas Everitt, lecturer in chemistry at the Middlesex Hospital. In 1839 he earned the doctorate degree under Liebig at Giessen. On his return to London he became Thomas Graham’s assistant at University College. He held lectureships in chemistry at Charing Cross and Middlesex hospitals. In 1842 he became professor of chemistry to the Pharmaceutical Society and began a lecture series on organic chemistry at the Royal Institution. He was the first director of the newly established Birkbeck Laboratory at University College (1845). Pulmonary disease obliged him to resign his lectureships by 1846, and after three years of poor health he died of consumption.

Fownes accomplished the bulk of his work in only four years (1842–1846). His most notable achievement was the isolation of two new organic bases. In 1845 he prepared furfural by the action of sulfuric acid on bran. In the same year he isolated benzoline (hydrobenzamide) from the oil of bitter almonds. In 1839 he accurately determined the equivalent weight of carbon by means of the combustion of naphthalene; Fownes reported that the accepted value as determined by Berzelius and others was too high. He prepared potassium cyanide by passing nitrogen over potassium carbonate and charcoal at high temperature, a process that was used industrially for a time. In 1844 he discovered the presence of phosphate in igneous rocks and suggested that this was the original source of phosphate in clay and soil.

He published two widely read books. In 1843 he was awarded the Royal Institution’s Acton Prize for his Chemistry, As Exemplifying the Wisdom and Beneficence of God, and argument for design in the universe based on the chemical constitution of the earth, sea, and atmosphere. His Manual of Elementary Chemistry (1844) was a very popular textbook for half a century.


I. Original Works Fownes’s Manual of Elementary Chemistry, Theoretical and Practicel (London, 1844) appeared in many eds. under the editorship of H. B. Jones, A. W. Hofmann, H. Watts, and W. A. Tilden: the final ed. was published in 1889. His Chemistry, As Exemplifying the wisdom and Beneficence of God had two eds. (London, 1844, 1849). Fownes also published An introduction to Qualitative Analysis (London, 1846) and Rudimentary Chemistry (London, 1848). Significant papers include “On the Equivalent of Carbon,” in The philosophical Magazine, ser. 3, 15 (1839), 62–65: “On the Formation of Cyanogen From Its Elements,” in Pharmaceutical Journal and Transactions, 1 (1842), 338–343; “On the Existence of Phosphoric Acid in Rocks of Igneous Origin,” in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 134 (1844), 53–56; “An Account of the Artificial Formation of a Vegeto-Alkali,” ibid., 135 (1845), 253–262; and “On Benzoline, a New Organic Salt-Base From Bitter Almond Oil,” ibid., 263–268.

II. Secondary Literature. The most detailed notice on Fownes is J. S. Rowe, “The Life and Work of George Fownes, F.R.S. (1815–49),” in Annals of Science, 6 (1948- 1950), 422–435. Several brief obituary notices appeared at the time of his death: Journal of the Chemical Society, 2 (1849), 184–187; Pharmaceutical Journal and Transactions, 8 (1849), 449–450; and Proceedings of the Royal Society, 5 (1849), 882–883.

Albert B. Costa