Woulfe, Peter

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(b, Ireland [?] 1727[?]; d. London, Engaland, 1803)


The familiar two-necked bottle generally known as a Woulfe’s bottle has long been a standard item of equipment in most chemical laboratories. The apparatus has been traced back to J. R. Glauber, and its attribution to Woulfe seems to stem from his use of a vessel with two outlets in a series of distillation experiments described in 1767. His “new method” was designed to prevent the escape of fumes “very hurtful to the lungs” by passing them through a tube into water.

Woulfe’s origins are obscure and little seems to be known of him before his election to the Royal Society in 1767, when he was described as a “Gentleman well skilled in Natural Philosophy and particularly Chymistry.” He was then living at Clerkenwell, London, and apparently spent most summers in Paris. What little is known of Woulfe, apart from his published work, relates mainly to his eccentricities, which were described by W. T. Brande, who cited him as a belated believer in transmutation; “He had long vainly searched for the elixir, and attributed his repeated failures to the want of due preparation by pious and charitable acts.” Humphry Davy, in his Collected works (IX, 367), said that Woulfe attached prayers to his apparatus. A. N. von Scherer, writing in 1801 (Allgenreines Journal der Chemie, 5, 128–129), hints at mental derangement “that must concern all friends of philosophy and natural knowledge” and it seems probable that these aberrations were characteristic of Woulfe’s later years. His writings are lucid and show him to have been a competent chemist. Priestley frequently referred to him as a valued friend who lent him apparatus, offered guidance, and suggested experiments.

In the paper of 1767, Woulfe described the preparation of “marine ether” (ethyl chloride) by mixing alcohol vapor with that from the reaction of sulfuric acid with common salt (hydrogen chloride). He also made “nitrous ether” (ethyl nitrate) by distilling alcohol with nitric acid, and in a paper of 1784 he reported a better yield by what he claimed to be a hitherto untried method, using niter and sulfuric acid instead of nitric acid. In 1771 he investigated “mosaic gold” (stannic sulfide; see J. R. Partington, in Isis21 [1934], 203–206), and in the same paper he described the use of indigo. After mentioning the known method of making a blue solution of the dye in sulfuric acid, Woulfe described its solution in nitric acid. He claimed to have obtained a yellow substance that would dye wool and silk, the first recorded preparation of picric acid.

In December 1775 Woulfe was appointed to give the first lecture under the terms of the will of Henry Baker, who had bequeathed £100 to the Royal Society, the interest from which was to finance an annual discourse, provided the first was given within a year of payment. The Council accepted the bequest on 13 July 1775, and Woulfe delivered the first Bakerian lecture on 20 June 1776.


I. Original Works. Woulfe’s main papers are “Experiments on the Distillation of Acids, Volatile Alkalies, & c. Shewing How They May Be Condensed Without Loss, & How Thereby We May Avoid Disagreeable and Noxious Fumes,” in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society,57 (1767), 517–536; “Experiments to Shew the Nature of Aurum Mosaicum,” ibid., 61 (1771), 114–130; “Experiments on a New Colouring Substance From the Island of Amsterdam in the South Sea,” ibid., 65 (1775), 91–93; “Experiments Made in Order to Ascertain the Nature of Some Mineral Substances; and, in Particular, to See How Far the Acids of Sea-Salt and of Vitriol Contribute to Mineralize Metallic and Other Substances,” ibid., 66 (1776), 605–623, the first Bakerian lecture; “Experiments on Some Mineral Substances,” ibid., 69 (1779), 11–34; and “A New Method of Making Nitrous Aether, by Which Means a Greater Quantity of the Aether Is Obtained With Less Expense and Trouble Than by Any Other Process Heretofore Described,” read 5 Feb. 1784–the paper was not published in Philosophical Transactions, but the MS is in the Royal Society archives, Letters & Papers, decade VIII (vol 73). no. 57; a French trans. was published in Observations sur la physique, sur l’histoire naturelle et sur les arts,25 (1784), 352–354. A few of Woulfe’s later papers (of little imporance) were published in the Observations.

II. Secondary Literature. No adequate biography exists; what little material is available seems to depend on W. T. Brande’s short account, based on hearsay, in the historical introduction to his Manual of Chemistry–for instance, 6th ed., I (London, 1848), xviii. P. J. Hartog, in Dictionary of National Biography, LXIII (1900), 63–64, gives some useful references; see also J. R. Partington, History of Chemistry, III (London, 1962), 300–301. The origin and history of “Woulfe’s bottle” is discussed in W. A. Campbell, “Peter Woulfe and His Bottle,” in Chemistry and Industry (1957), 1182–1183.

E. L. Scott