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Black, Joseph, 1728-1799, chemist

Biographical Information

Occupation, Sphere of Activity

Joseph Black, chemist, was born in 1728, at Bordeaux, where his father, John Black, carried on the business of a wine-merchant. John Black was a native of Belfast, but of Scottish extraction, and married a daughter of Robert Gordon, of the Gordons of Hill-head in Aberdeenshire, like himself, engaged in the Bordeaux wine trade, by whom he had eight sons and five daughters. At the age of twelve Joseph Black was placed at a grammar school in Belfast, and in 1746, proceeded to the University of Glasgow. There he chose medicine as his profession, and became interested in chemistry through the teachings of William Cullen. Cullen noted Black's aptitude, and promoted him from the classroom to the laboratory as his assistant. In 1750, Black went to Edinburgh to complete his medical studies, graduating in 1754.

In 1756, Black was appointed to replace William Cullen as Professor of anatomy and chemistry in the University of Glasgow; but dissatisfied with his qualifications for this post, he exchanged duties with the Professor of medicine, in 1757. He was at the same time in general practice as a physician, and devoted a great deal of his time to the welfare of his patients. Black's research into latent heat were carried out while at Glasgow, and in 1761, he was able to show that when a quantity of water froze it gave up an amount of heat equal to the amount absorbed or rendered latent during liquefaction of the ice. The results of this brilliant investigation not only formed the basis of modern thermal science, but also gave the first impulse to James Watt's improvements in the steam-engine, and thereby to modern industrial developments. Black read an account of his successful experiments before a literary society in Glasgow, 23 April 1762, and from 1761, taught the doctrine of latent heat in his lectures. In 1767, Black also successfully inflated a balloon with hydrogen, the first time such a thing had been attempted.

By 1763, the accomadation for chemistry was proving inadequate for the large number of students. A commitee was set up to examine the problem to which Black described the existing laboratory as small and damp, with unlaid floors, unplastered walls, and requiring the lecturer to teach in one room while the demonstrations were in the laboratory. As a result the University agreed to equip a new laboratory and lecture room, at the cost of £500.

Still treading in the footsteps of his friend and teacher, Black became, on Cullen's advancement to a higher post in 1766, Professor of medicine and chemistry in the University of Edinburgh. At this point he gave up research, and devoted himself exclusively to teaching. In this he was very successful, with audience attendance at his lectures increasing from year to year, for more than thirty years. His lectures had a powerful effect in popularising chemistry, and attendance at them even came to be a fashionable amusement.

Another reason for his lack of research, was his poor constitution. The least undue strain, whether physical or mental, produced spitting of blood, and it was only through great care that he maintained unbroken, though feeble, health. From 1793, however, it visibly declined, and he gradually withdrew more and more from his teaching duties. In 1795, Charles Hope was appointed his coadjutor in his professorship, and in 1797, he lectured for the last time. He died peacefully at his home, on 6 December 1799. He was never married, but lived on the best terms with his family. He was indifferent to fame, and disliked the publicity of authorship to such an extent that he never published his important work on latent heat.


William Cullen was a large influence on Black's life, first teaching him at Glasgow University, and then employing him as his assistant. They had a close friendship throughout their lives.

Black formed a close friendship with Adam Smith, while in Glasgow, which lasted throughout his life. Smith used to say of Black, that 'no man had less nonsense in his head than Dr. Black.'

Black was one of James Watt's teachers, and earliest patrons, and kept up a constant correspondence with him.

Other Significant Information

Notable publications:

Lectures on the Elements of Chemistry, delivered in the University of Edinburgh, ( 1803)

Honours, Qualifications and Appointments

1756-1757: Professor of anatomy and chemistry, University of Glasgow

1757-1766: Professor of medicine, University of Glasgow

1766-1797: Professor of medicine and chemistry, University of Edinburgh.

Black was also elected member of the Paris and St. Petersburg Academies of Sciences, of the Society of Medicine of Paris, as well as of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and of the Royal College of Physicians.


List of sources for the biographical information:

Coutts, James, A History of the University of Glasgow: 1451-1909, (Glasgow, James Maclehose and Sons, 1909)

Harrison, Brian (editor), Dictionary of National Biography, ( University Press, 1995)

Neilson, J.B. (editor), Fortuna Domus, first ed, (Glasgow, University of Glasgow, 1952)

Rules or Conventions

Authority record created according to theNational Council on ArchivesRules for the Construction of Personal, Place and Corporate Names (NCA Rules)1997 and International Council on Archives: Ad Hoc Committee on Descriptive StandardsInternational Standard Archival Authority Record for Corporate Bodies, Persons and Families (ISAAR)CPF1995

Author and Date of Biographical History

Personal name authority record compiled for the GASHE project by John O'Brien, Glasgow University Archive Services, 5 August 2002