Lubbock, Richard

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Lubbock, Richard

(b. Norwich, England, 1759[?]; d. Norwich, 2 September 1808)


Lubbock’s place in the history of chemistry depends solely on his M.D. dissertation (1784), which embodies one of the earliest examples of the rejection of the phlogiston theory in Britain. He was a pupil of Joseph Black, who, according to Lubbock, had long been teaching the phlogiston theory without confidence. Lubbock implies that Black had recently abandoned it, although Black’s acceptance of Lavoisier’s theory is not generally thought to have occurred as early as 1784. In a letter to Lavoisier in October 1790 Black mentions his original “aversion to the new system” and says that although the approval by older chemists of the new ideas might be prevented by power of habit, “the younger ones will not be influenced by the same power” (see D. McKie, “Antoine Laurent Lavoisier, 1743–1794,” in Notes and Records. Royal Society of London,7 [1950], 1–41). Lubbock said that his own theory was partly met by that of Lavoisier but that the latter left some important points unexplained, such as the nature of heat and light.

Little is known of Lubbock’s life. He was educated at Norwich Free School and the University of Edinburgh, practiced medicine in Norwich, and was physician at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital from 1790 to 1808. His younger son, the Reverend Richard Lubbock, wrote a classic work on the natural history of Norfolk.

In his Dissertatio... de principio sorbili Lubbock said that it had long been accepted that the air contained a principle which maintained life and which governed calcination, combustion, and other natural processes. It had been given a variety of naines–Priestley’s “dephlogisticated air” and Lavoisier’s “eminently respirable air”—Lubbock favored the term “pure air,” which had also been used. According to him it was a compound of an absorbable part (principium sorbile) and of principium aéri proprium; the latter was the matter of light and heat and was without mass, Metals and combustible substances such as charcoal, sulfur, and phosphorus were true elements: on calcination or combustion they combined with principium sorbile and thereby gained weight, the principium aéri proprium being liberated as heat and light. The variation in the evolution of the latter depended on the extent to which the principium sorbile was removed; as this increased, so the amount of heat manifested increased; if the removal of the principle was extensive, light appeared. Lubbock contended that Lavoisier’s theory did not explain why air in which combustion had taken place was vitiated. His idea was that “phlogisticated air”—Lavoisier’s “azotic gas” (nitrogen)—was a compound of principium sorbile with a greater proportion of principium aëri proprium than exists in “pure air.”

Lubbock’s exposition, which was preceded by a critical examination of Stahl’s ideas and some prevailing variants of them, was illustrated by numerous experiments. His work was known in Europe: principe sorbile is given as a synonym for oxigène in Lavoisier’s Méthode de nomenclature chimique (1787), and extracts from his dissertation were quoted by Christoph Girtanner in an early textbook based on the antiphlogistic system (1792).


Lubbock’s unique work is Dissertatio physico-chemica, inauguralis, de principio sorbili, sive commmci mutatiournr chemicarum causa, quaestiotem, an phlogiston sit substantia, an qualitas, agitans; et alteram ignis theoriam complcctens... (Edinburgh, 1784). His ideas are examined by D. McKie and J. R. Partington, in Annals of Science, 3 (1938), 356–361, as part of their “Historical Studies on the Phlogiston Theory,” ibid., 2 (1937), 361–404; 3 (1938), 1–58, 337–371 (with portrait of Lubbock); 4 (1940), 113–149. See also J. R. Partington, A History of Chemistry,III (London, 1962), 489, 627.

E. L. Scott