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Gregory, William

Gregory, William

(b. Edinburgh, Scotland, 25 December 1803; d. Edinburgh, 24 April 1858)


William Gregory was the fourth son of James Gregory, professor of medicine at the University of Edinburgh. William was educated for the medical profession and graduated in 1828 from the University of Edinburgh. After graduation he chose to pursue his interest in chemistry rather than practice medicine. During the next few years he made extended visits to the Continent and worked as assistant to several chemists, most notably Justus Liebig at his Giessen laboratory in 1835. There he developed a primary interest in organic chemistry. Following his work with Liebig, Gregory returned to Edinburgh where he gave public lectures in chemistry.

In 1837 Gregory accepted a lectureship at Anderson College in Glasgow and the next year at a Dublin medical school. Gregory was appointed professor of chemistry at King’s College, Aberdeen, in 1839 and remained there, except for an additional year of study with Liebig in 1841, until 1844. Gregory suffered from poor health most of his life and continued to make trips “to the Continent to restore his strength. He returned to the University of Edinburgh in 1844 and held the chair of chemistry until his death.

William Gregory is important to the development of chemistry primarily because of his translations into English of the many works of Liebig on organic, agricultural, and physiological chemistry. His own research was devoted chiefly to organic chemistry, especially the separation and analysis of natural products. Gregory investigated the preparation of morphine and codeine from opium and was the first to describe the preparation of isoprene from crude rubber. He also wrote several successful chemical textbooks.

In 1846 Gregory abstracted for a British journal the studies which Karl von Reichenbach had performed in 1845 on animal magnetism. Gregory later translated and published, with a twenty-seven-page preface of his own, Reichenbach’s Researches on Magnetism, Electricity, Heat, Light, Crystallization, and Chemical Attraction, in Their Relations to the Vital Force (1850). Criticized for both the abstract and the translation of Reichenbach’s work, Gregory further incurred the disapproval of his colleagues at the University of Edinburgh with his publication of Letters To a Candid Inquirer on Animal Magnetism (1851). In this work he attempted to establish a scientific basis for phenomena such as clairvoyance, thought transference, and unusual sensitivity of subjects who were under the influence of hypnotism. Following Reichenbach, he attributed most of these cases to emanations of a physical fluid, called odyl. His work on animal magnetism went through four editions during the nineteenth century. In addition, he published many pamphlets and papers on this subject. During the last ten years of his life, Gregory also became interested in the study of diatoms, on which he wrote twelve papers.


I. Original Works. A list of Gregory’s published papers, including those on diatoms, can be found in the Royal Society’s Catalogue of Scientific Papers (1800-1863), 3 (1869), 8-10. This list does not include Gregory’s papers on animal magnetism, many of which were published in Zoist, A Journal of Cerebral Physiology and Mesmerism, and Their Applications to Human Welfare, and the Phrenological Journal (Edinburgh). These articles include “On the True Scientific Spirit in Which the Claims of Phrenology and Mesmerism Ought to be Examined,” in Phrenological Journal (1847), pp, 1-28; “On Animal Magnetism,” in Zoist, (1851), 423-424;and “On the Theory of Imagination as the Cause of Mesmerie Phenomena, and On Money Challenges in Mesmerism,” ibid., 10 (1852), 1-37.

Gregory’s important books include Outlines of Chemistry, for the Use of Students (London, (1845); Letters to a Candid lnquirer on Animal Magnetism (Edinburgh, 1851); Handbook of Organic Chemistry)(London, 1852); and Elementary Treatise on Chemistry (Edinburgh, 1855). He also edited, with Justus Liebig, the 1842 and 1847 rev. eds. of Edwar’d Turner; Elements of Chemistry.

Gregory’s translations, of Liebig’s works include Instructions for Chemical Analysis of Organic Bodies (Glasgow, 1839); Animal Chemistry (Cambridge, 1842); Chemistry in its Applications to Agriculture and Physiology (London, 1847); Researches on the Chemistry of Food (London, 1847); Researches on the Motion of the Juices in the Animal Body (London, 1848); Familiar Letters on Chemistry (London, 1851); and Principles of Agricultural Chemistry (London, 1855). See also his trans. of Karl von Reichenbach, Researches on Magnetism, Electricity, Heat, Light, Crystallization, and chemical attraction, in Their Relations to the Vitral force. (London, 1850).

II. Secondary Literature. A brief sketch of Gregory’s life may be found in the Dictionary of National Biography, VIII, 548. The following are obituaries: Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal, 8 (1858), 171-175; Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 4 (1857-1862), 121-122; Transactions of the Botanical Society of Edinburgh, 6 (1857-1560), 75-79; and Journal of the Chemical society, 12 (1860), 172-175. An extensive review of Gregory’s work on animal magnetism appeared in the British and Foreign Medico-Chirurgical Review, 8 (1851), 378-431.

Daniel P. Jones

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