Black, Joseph 1728 - 1799

(1728-1799), chemist

Joseph Black, chemist and physician, was born on the 16th April 1728 in Bordeaux, France. He was educated by his Scottish mother, who taught him English, until the age of twelve when he attended school in Belfast. In 1744 he entered the University of Glasgow where after attending the general curriculum for three years he decided to study medicine and hence attended the chemistry lectures of William Cullen. Chemistry captivated him, his interest being warmly encouraged by Cullen, and for three years he served as Cullen's assistant. In 1752 he went to the University of Edinburgh to complete his medical studies and graduated M.D. in 1754.

In 1755 Black read to the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh a classic paper, published in 1756, describing chemical experiments many of which had been incorporated in his graduation thesis. This paper, which shows Black as an outstanding scientist, demonstrated quantitatively that a gas which he called "fixed air" (carbon dioxide) was a constituent of alkaline solids such as basic magnesium carbonate; as important as his results was Black's pioneering quantitative approach to chemical experimentation.

In 1755 Cullen was appointed Professor of Chemistry in Edinburgh, and in 1756 Black succeeded him in Glasgow where he added to his teaching duties a large medical practice. While at Glasgow Black developed his second important research on latent heat and specific heats; he first described his investigations in 1762 to a philosophical and literary society in Glasgow but he never published this work. In 1766 Black succeeded Cullen as Professor of Chemistry at Edinburgh. After taking up the Edinburgh chair, at the age of thirty-eight, Black did no further significant research but through his teaching contributed very importantly to the development of chemistry.

During his lifetime many manuscript versions of his lectures, several of which survive, were made by students and by professional copyists. In 1795 Black, in declining health, negotiated the appointment of a former student, Thomas Charles Hope, as conjoint Professor of Chemistry. Black died on 6 December 1799 aged seventy-one at Nicolson Street, Edinburgh, and was buried on 13 December in Greyfriars churchyard.