Herapath, William Bird

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Herapath, William Bird

(b. Bristol, England, 28 February 1820; d. Bristol, 12 October 1868)

medicine, chemistry.

Herapath was the oldest son of William Herapath, a well-known analytical chemist who was professor of chemistry and toxicology at the Bristol Medical School and one of the founders of the Chemical Society. He received his higher education at London University, where he was awarded the M.B. in 1844 with honors in six different branches of medical knowledge. He became a licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries in 1843; in 1844, following his graduation, he was elected to the Royal College of Surgeons and began serving in that capacity at Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital in Bristol. He received the M.D. in 1851.

Herapath published many articles in medical, chemical, and other scientific journals. These articles show that his students assisted him in some of his researches and establish a close research relationship between Herapath and both W. Haidinger and George G. Stokes, secretary of the Royal Society. Each article was often published in several periodicals, data and content unchanged, although in some cases editorial alterations were made. A number of important discoveries were reported in Herapath’s articles.

The most celebrated of these discoveries occurred in 1852, when Herapath attempted to prepare polarizing capsules of large aperture. He succeeded in producing small but usable crystals of the iodosulfate of quinine (now known as herapathite), which he patented for optical use. Herapathite absorbs completely one component of polarization and transmits the other with little loss; it is usually employed in the form of small rhomboidal plates oriented in the same direction within a transparent film. Herapath also referred to this compound as artificial tourmaline and discussed its advantage in optics over the Nicol prism.

In addition to this major work, Herapath also devised new methods for detecting arsenic and other substances, designed a new combustion blowpipe for organic analyses, used the spectroscope and microspectroscope to detect bloodstains, experimented with alkaloids, and developed new techniques for pathological investigations. The broad range of his activities is indicative of his belief in the need for a close alliance between chemistry, medicine, and medical research; he attested to this belief in his lecture On Chemistry and Its Relation to Medical Studies and Associated Sciences (1863).

Herapath’s less purely scientific works include instructions for Clifton Cleve’s Hints on Domestic Sanitation (1848) and, in 1854, an analysis of the waters of the spa and a description of the Bristol and Clifton hot wells, which were later incorporated into the Handbook for Visitors to the Bristol and Clifton Hotwells.

Herapath’s bibliography lists few publications of any sort after 1864, since he became ill with the disease (perhaps a form of jaundice) of which he was to die at the early age of forty-eight. Despite his illness, he continued his work on spectroscopic analysis until a few days before his death. A posthumously published memorandum reports the results of more than 250 optical analyses on the chlorophyl of various plants, including fifty-four plants in the Forth. Although short, Herapath’s career was a productive one, nurtured by the interests he shared with his father, his broad medical background, his analytical skills, and most of all by his zeal for science. He was survived by his wife and six children.


I. Original Works. Among Herapath’s works are “On the Optical Properties of a Newly Discovered Salt of Quinine, Which Crystalline Substance Possesses the Power of Polarizing a Ray of Light, Like Tourmaline, and at Certain Angles of Rotation of Depolarizing It Like Selenite.” in Philosophical Magazine, 4th ser., 3 (1852), 161–173; “On the Chemical Constitution and Atomic Weight of the New Polarizing Crystals Produced From Quinine,” ibid., 4 (1852), 186–192; “On the Discovery of Quinine and Quinidine in the Urine of Patients Under Medical Treatment With the Salts of These Mixed Alkaloids,” ibid., 6 (1853), 171–175; “On the Manufacture of Available Crystals of Sulphate of Iodo-Quinine (Herapathite) for Optical Purposes as Artificial Tourmalines,” ibid., pp. 346–351; “Further Researches Into the Properties of the Sulphate of Iodo-Quinine (Herapathite) More Especially in Regard to Its Crystallography, With Additional Facts Concerning Its Optical Relations.” ibid., pp. 284–289, “Letter to Prof. Stokes—On the Compounds of Iodine and Strychnine,” ibid., 10 (1855), 454–455; “On the Detection of Strychnine by the Formation of Iodo-Strychnine,” ibid., 13 (1857), 197–198; “On the Optical Characters of Certain Alkaloids Associated With Quinine, and of the Sulphates of their Iodo-Compounds,” in Proceedings of the Royal Society, 8 (1856–1857), 340–343; “Researches on the Cinchona Alkaloids,” ibid., 9 (1857–1859), 5–22; “Preliminary Notice of Additional Researches on the Cinchona Alkaloids,” ibid., pp. 316–321; On Chemistry and Its Relation to Medical Studies and Associated Sciences (Bristol, 1863); “On a New Method of Detecting Arsenic, Antimony, Sulphur, and Phosphorus, by Their Hydrogen Compounds, When in Mixed Gases,” in Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, 34 (1864), Transactions Sec., 31–32; “On the Pedicellariae of the Echinodermata,” ibid., pp. 95–97; “On the Genus Synapta;” ibid., pp. 97–98; “On the Occurrence of Indigo in Purulent Discharges,” in Chemical News, 10 (1864), 169–171; “On a New Combustion Blowpipe for Organic Analysis,” in Journal of the Chemical Society, n.s. 2 (1864), 49–50; “On the Use of the Spectroscope and Microspectroscope in the Discovery of Blood Stains and Dissolved Blood, and in Pathological Inquiries,” in Chemical News, 17 (1868), 113–115, 124–125; and “Memorandum of Spectroscopic Researches on the Chlorophyl of Various Plants,” in Monthly Microscopical Journal, 2 (1869), 131–133.

II. Secondary Literature. See Boase, Modern English Biography Since 1850, I (1892), 1437; Dictionary of National Biography, IX (1937), 615; Illustrated London News (24 Oct. 1868), p. 411; Lancet (24 Oct. 1868), 2 , 559; Poggendortff, and Royal Society Catalogue of Scientific Papers, III, 303; VII, 955.

Claude K. Deischer