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Garnett, Thomas

Garnett, Thomas

(b. Casterton, Westmorland, England, 21 April 1766; d. London, England, 28 June 1802)

medicine, natural philosophy.

Garnett’s importance derives from his influence on the aims, style, and method of operation of the Royal Institution in London, where he was the first professor of natural philosophy and chemistry. He was a famed lecture demonstrator who pleased intelligent public audiences. After indifferent schooling, he was voluntarily articled in 1781 to the mathematician and surgeon John Dawson.

In 1785 he matriculated at Edinburgh, where he was profoundly influenced by the chemical lectures of Joseph Black and the medical lectures of John Brown. He took the M.D. in 1788 and finished his medical education in London in 1789. Later that year he wrote the article “Optics” for the Encyclopaedia Britannica. He supplemented his medical practice, Conducted in the north of England, with’ chemical Analyses and lecture demonstrations, using equipment that he himself had designed and built. In 1795 he Married Grace Cleveland. While waiting for passage to America, where he hoped to teach chemistry, he accepted the professorship of natural philosophy at Anderson’s Institution in Glasgow. He resigned in 1799 to join the Royal Institution, then being organized. Count Rumford, who knew Garnett by reputation Only, accepted his suggestions about necessary facilities and the design of the lectures. On 4 March 1800 Garnett opened the lectures; his first season was highly successful. Unfortunately, he became the victim of bouts of melancholy induced by the death of his wife in childbirth on 25 December 1798, and his second lecture season was not well received. Rumford’s high-handed treatment of him only increased the tension growing between Garnett and the managers of the Royal Institution, leading to his resignation on 15 June 1801. Garnett subsequently set himself up in Great Marlborough Street as a lecturer, and he also edited the first volume of the Annals of Philosophy, Natural History, Chemistry, Literature, Agriculture, and the Mechanical and Fine Arts.


I. Original Works. The library of the Royal Institution owns some Garnett letters; the minute books of the Institution for this early period are regrettably brief, but the information is helpful. J. R. Partington, History of Chemistry, IV (London, 1964), 32, lists Garnett’s chief publications. Garnett’s Observations on a Tour Through the Highlands and Part of the Western Isles of Scotland, Particularly Staffa and Icolmkill, 2 vols. (London, 1800), II, 193–205, contains a description of the aims, plans, and modus operandi for Anderson’s Institution in Glasgow.

II. Secondary Liteature. All accounts of Garnett derive from an anonymous introduction to his posthumously published Popular Lectures on Zoonomia, or the Laws of Animal Life, in Health and Disease (London, 1804), pp. [v]-xii. Garnett’s portrait is the frontispiece. H. Bence-Jones, in The Royal Institution: Its Founder and Its First Professors (London, 1871), pp. 162-172, supplements this material with excerpts from Garnett’s letters, including one of 23 December 1799, which outlines a plan for the operation of the Royal Institution. Richard Garnett wrote the biographical entry in Dictionary of National Biography, VII, 886-887. K. D. C. Vernon, “The Foundation and Early Years of the Royal Institution,” in Proceedings of the Royal Institution, 39 , no. 179 (1963), 364-402, expands Jones’s account.

June Z. Fullmer

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