Muir, Matthew Moncrieff Pattison

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(b. Glasgow, Scotland, 1 November 1848; d. Epsom, England, 2 September 193l)


Muir was the son of a Glasgow merchant and received his elementary education in his native city. He began the study of chemistry at the University of Glasgow. In 1870 he entered the University of Tübingen in order to continue his studies, but the Franco-Prussian War forced his return home in 1871. He then served for two years as demonstrator in chemistry at Anderson College in Glasgow, and in 1873 he accepted a similar position at Owens College in Manchester.

In 1877 he was appointed to the praelectorship in chemistry at Gonville and Caius College at Cambridge, where he remained for the rest of his scientific career. He received an honorary M.A. in 1880, and in 1881 he became a fellow of the College. At the time of his death he was its senior fellow. By his 1873 marriage to Florence Haslam he had two sons, both of whom became clergymen. He retired from active teaching in 1908 and spent the remainder of his life at his home in Epsom, devoting himself to writing. Throughout his life he took an active part in politics.

Muir’s laboratory investigations, which were carried out between 1876 and 1888, chiefly related to compounds of bismuth. He and his students published eighteen papers in this field. It is said that for a time his students called him Mr. Bismuth. He was not essentially interested in laboratory work, but rather preferred teaching and writing. His courses, especially those for medical students, were considered outstanding, and he excelled in encouraging weaker students, to whom his home was always open.

He closely followed the scientific literature and was therefore able to write a number of textbooks for the use of his students. His text Principles of Chemistry (1889)went through two editions, and his Elements of Thermal Chemistry (1885) was highly successful. He translated Ostwald’s book on solutions (1891) and took part in a major revision of Watts’ Dictionary of Chemistry. From the beginning of his career, his chief interest lay in the philosophical aspects of chemistry. In the 1880’s he turned to historical studies, and in this field he made his greatest contributions. His historical writings began when he was asked to prepare a biographical work on famous chemists for a series on heroes of science. The book appeared in 1883 and so aroused his interest in the subject that for the rest of his life he devoted himself with increasing frequency to historical studies. In his later years Muir worked entirely in this field. Besides his biographical studies of famous chemists, he wrote on the chemical elements and alchemy. His chief historical work, which was published in 1907, was his History of Chemical Theories and Laws. He said that in this book he was trying to picture the steps in the development of major advances in chemistry without obscuring them by details. The book remains a classic in the history of chemistry.


I. Original Works. Muir’s original studies lay in the field of historical works. His books included Heroes of Science: Chemists (London, 1883); The Alchemical Essence and the Chemical Element (London, 1894); History of Chemical Theories and Laws (London and New York, 1907); The Story of the Chemical Elements (London, 1908); and The Story of Alchemy and the Beginnings of Chemistry (London, 1914).

II. Secondary Literature. The only substantial biography is R. S. Morrell, “M. M. Pattison Muir 1848–1931,” in Journal of the Chemical Society (1932), 1330–1334.

Henry M. Leicester

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Muir, Matthew Moncrieff Pattison

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