The Glories of Ireland



President, University College, Cork.

We may divide our survey of the debt owed to Ireland by science into three periods: the earliest, the intermediate, and the latest.

In the earliest period the names which come before us are chiefly those of compilers such as Augustin, a monk and an Irishman who wrote at Carthage, in Africa, in the seventh century, a Latin treatise on The Wonderful Things of the Sacred Scripture, still extant, in which, in connection with Joshua’s miracle, a very full account of the astronomical knowledge of the period, Ptolemaic, but in many ways remarkably accurate, is given. There are, however, three distinguished names. Virgil the Geometer, i.e., Fergil (O’Farrell), was Abbot of Aghaboe, went to the continent in 741, and was afterwards Bishop of Salzburg. He died in 785. He is remembered by his controversies with St. Boniface, one of which is concerned with the question of the Antipodes. Virgil is supposed to have been the first to teach that the earth is spherical. So celebrated was he that it has been thought that a part of the favor in which the author of the Aeneid was held by medieval churchmen was due to a confusion between his name and that of the geometer, sometimes spoken of as St. Virgil.

Dicuil, also an Irish monk, was the author of a remarkable work on geography, De Mensura Provinciarum Orbis Terrae, which was written in 825, and contains interesting references to Iceland and especially to the navigable canal which once connected the Nile with the Red Sea. He wrote between 814 and 816 a work on astronomy which has never been published. It is probable, but not certain, that he belonged to Clonmacnois.

Dungal, like the two others named above, was an astronomer. He probably belonged to Bangor, and left his native land early in the ninth century. In 811 he wrote a remarkable work, Dungali Reclusi Epistola de duplici solis eclipsi anno 810 ad Carolum Magnum. This letter, which is still extant, was written at the request of Charlemagne, who considered its author to be the most learned astronomer in existence and most likely to clear up the problem submitted to him.

Before passing to the next period, a word should be said as to the medieval physicians, often if not usually belonging to families of medical men, such as the Leahys and O’Hickeys, and attached hereditarily to the greater clans. These men were chiefly compilers, but such works of theirs as we have throw light upon the state of medical knowledge in their day. Thus there is extant a treatise on Materia Medica (1459); written by Cormac MacDuinntsleibhe (Dunleavy), hereditary physician to the clan of O’Donnell in Ulster. A more interesting work is the Cursus Medicus, consisting of six books on Physiology, three on Pathology, and four on Semeiotica, written in the reign of Charles I. of England by Nial O’Glacan, born in Donegal, and at one time physician to the king of France.

O’Glacan’s name introduces us to the middle period, if indeed it does not belong there. Inter arma silent leges, and it may be added, scientific work. The troublous state of Ireland for many long years fully explains the absence of men of science in any abundance until the end of the eighteenth century. Still there are three names which can never be forgotten, belonging to the period in question. Sir Hans Sloane was born at Killileagh, in Ulster, in 1660. He studied medicine abroad, went to London where he settled, and was made a Fellow of the Royal Society. He published a work on the West Indies, but his claim to undying memory is the fact that it was the bequest of his most valuable and extensive collections to the nation which was the beginning and foundation of the British Museum, perhaps the most celebrated institution of its kind in the world. Sloane’s collection, it should be added, contained an immense number of valuable books and manuscripts, as well as of objects more usually associated with the idea of a museum. He died in 1753.

The Hon. Robert Boyle was born at Lismore, in the county Waterford, in 1627, being the fourteenth child of the first Earl of Cork. On his tombstone he is described as “The Father of Chemistry and the Uncle of the Earl of Cork”, and, indeed, in his Skyptical Chimist (1661), he assailed, and for the time overthrew, the idea of the alchemists that there was a materia prima, asserting as he did that theory of chemical “elements” which held good until the discoveries in connection with radium led to a modification in chemical teaching. This may be said of Boyle, that his writings profoundly modified scientific opinion, and his name will always stand in the forefront amongst those of chemists. He made important improvements in the air-pump, was one of the earliest Fellows of the Royal Society, and founded the “Boyle Lectures.” He died in 1691.

Sir Thomas Molyneux was born in Dublin, in 1661, of a family which had settled in Ireland about 1560-70. He practised as a physician in his native city, was the first person to describe the Irish Elk and to demonstrate the fact that the Giant’s Causeway was a natural and not, as had been previously supposed, an artificial production. He was the author of many other scientific observations. He died in 1733.

We may now turn to more recent times, and it will be convenient to divide our subjects according to the branch of science in which they were distinguished, and to commence with


of whom Ireland may boast of a most distinguished galaxy.

Sir William Rowan Hamilton (b. in Dublin 1805, d. 1865), belonged to a family, long settled in Ireland, but of Scottish extraction. He was a most precocious child. He read Hebrew at the age of seven, and at twelve, had studied Latin, Greek, and four leading continental languages, as well as Persian, Syriac, Arabic, Sanscrit, and other tongues. In 1819 he wrote a letter to the Persian ambassador in that magnate’s own language. After these linguistic contests, he early turned to mathematics, in which he was apparently self-taught; yet, in his seventeenth year he discovered an error in Laplace’s Mécanique Céleste. He entered Trinity College where he won all kinds of distinctions, being famous not merely as a mathematician, but as a poet, a scholar, and a metaphysician. He was appointed Professor of Astronomy and Astronomer Royal whilst still an undergraduate. He predicted “conical refraction,” afterwards experimentally proved by another Irishman, Humphrey Lloyd. He twice received the Gold Medal of the Royal Society: (i) for optical discoveries; (ii) for his theory of a general method of dynamics, which resolves an extremely, abstruse problem relative to a system of bodies in motion. He was the discoverer of a new calculus, that of Quaternions, which attracted the attention of Professor Tait of Edinburgh, and was by him made comprehensible to lesser mathematicians. It is far too abstruse for description here.

Sir George Gabriel Stokes (born in Sligo 1819, d. 1903) was, if not the greatest mathematician, at least among the greatest, of the last hundred years. He was educated in Cambridge, where he spent the rest of his life, being appointed Lucasian Professor of Mathematics in 1849, and celebrating the jubilee of that appointment in 1899. He was member of parliament for his University, and for a time occupied the presidential chair of the Royal Society. He devoted himself, inter alia, to optical work, and is perhaps best known by those researches which deal with the undulatory theory of light. It was on this subject that he delivered the Burnett lectures in Aberdeen (1883-1885).

James McCullagh, the son of a poor farmer, was born in Tyrone in 1809, d. 1847. His early death, due to his own hand in a fit of insanity, cut short his work, but enough remains to permit him to rank amongst the great mathematicians of all time, his most important work being his memoir on surfaces of the second order.

Humphrey Lloyd (b. in Dublin 1800, d. 1881), F.R.S. His father was Provost of Trinity College, Dublin, a position subsequently occupied also by the son. Lloyd’s work was chiefly concerned with optics and magnetism, and it was in connection with the former that he carried out what was probably the most important single piece of work of his life, namely, the experimental proof of the phenomenon of conical refraction which had been predicted by Sir William Hamilton. He was responsible for the erection of the Magnetic Observatory in Dublin, and the instruments used in it were constructed under his observation and sometimes from his designs or modifications. He was also a meteorologist of distinction.

George Salmon (b. in Dublin 1819, d. 1904), like the last mentioned subject, was, at the time of his death, Provost of Trinity College, Dublin. Besides theological writings, he contributed much to mathematical science, especially in the directions of conic sections, analytic geometry, higher plane curves, and the geometry of three dimensions. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society, and received the Copley and Royal medals, as well as distinctions from many universities and learned societies.

John Casey (b. Kilkenny 1820, d. 1891), F.R.S., was educated at a National School and became a teacher in one in later years. Entirely self-taught as a mathematician, he raised himself from the humble position which he occupied to be a university professor (in the Catholic University of Ireland, and afterwards in the Royal University), and earned the highest reputation as one of the greatest authorities on plane geometry. He was a correspondent of eminent mathematicians all over the world.

Henry Hennessey (b. in Cork 1826, d. 1901), F.R.S., was also a professor in the Catholic University of Ireland and afterwards in the Royal College of Science in Dublin. He was a writer on mathematics, terrestrial physics, and climatology.

Benjamin Williamson (b. in Cork 1827), F.R.S., is a Senior Fellow of Trinity College, Dublin, and a distinguished writer on mathematical subjects, especially on the differential, integral, and infinitesimal calculuses.

Sir Joseph Larmor (b. in Antrim 1857), F.R.S., was educated at Queen’s College, Belfast, and in Cambridge, in which last place he has spent his life as a professor. He now represents the University in parliament and is secretary to the Royal Society. He is well-known for his writings on the ether and on other physical as well as mathematical subjects.


William Parsons, Earl of Rosse (b. in York 1800, d. 1867), F.R.S., was a very distinguished astronomer who experimented in fluid lenses and made great improvements in casting specula for reflecting telescopes. From 1842-45 he was engaged upon the construction, in his park at Parsonstown, of his great reflecting telescope 58 feet long. This instrument, which cost £30,000, long remained the largest in the world. He was president of the Royal Society from 1848 to 1854.

Sir Howard Grubb (b. 1844), F.R.S., is known all over the world for his telescopes and for the remarkable advances which he has made in the construction of lenses for instruments of the largest size.

Sir Robert Ball (b. in Dublin 1840, d. 1913), F.R.S. Originally Lord Rosse’s astronomer at Parsonstown, he migrated as professor to Trinity College, Dublin, and subsequently became Lowndean Professor of Astronomy at Cambridge. He was a great authority on the mathematical theory of screws, and his popular works on astronomy have made him known to a far wider circle of readers than those who can grapple with his purely scientific treatises.

William Edward Wilson (b. Co. Westmeath 1851, d. 1908), F.R.S. A man of independent means, he erected, with the help of his father, an astronomical observatory at his residence. In this well-equipped building he made many photographic researches, especially into the nature of nebulae. He also devoted himself to solar physics, and wrote some remarkable papers on the sudden appearance in 1903 of the star Nova Persei. He was the first to call attention to the probability that radium plays a part in the maintenance of solar heat. In fact, the science of radio-activity was engaging his keenest interest at the time of his early death.

A.A. Rambaut (b. Waterford 1859), F.R.S., formerly Astronomer Royal for Ireland and now Radcliffe Observer at Oxford, is one of the leading astronomers of the day.


Lord Kelvin, better known as Sir William Thompson (b. Belfast 1824, d. 1907), F.R.S. Amongst the greatest physicists who have ever lived, his name comes second only to that of Newton. He was educated at Cambridge, became professor of natural philosophy in Glasgow University in 1846, and celebrated the jubilee of his appointment in 1896. To the public his greatest achievement was the electric cabling of the Atlantic Ocean, for which he was knighted in 1866. His electrometers and electric meters, his sounding apparatus, and his mariners’ compass are all well-known and highly valued instruments. To his scientific fellows, however, his greatest achievements were in the field of pure science, especially in connection with his thermodynamic researches, including the doctrine of the dissipation or degradation of energy. To this brief statement may be added mention of his work in connection with hydrodynamics and his magnetic and electric discoveries. His papers in connection with wave and vortex movements are also most remarkable. He was awarded the Royal and Copley medals and was an original member of the Order of Merit. He received distinctions from many universities and learned societies.

George Francis Fitzgerald (b. Dublin 1851, d. 1901), F.R.S., was fellow and professor of natural philosophy in Trinity College, Dublin, where he was educated. He was the first person to call the attention of the world to the importance of Hertz’s experiment. Perhaps his most important work, interrupted by his labors in connection with education and terminated by his early death, was that in connection with the nature of the ether.

George Johnston Stoney (b. King’s Co. 1826, d. 1911), F.R.S., after being astronomer at Parsonstown and professor of natural philosophy at Galway, became secretary to the Queen’s University and occupied that position until the dissolution of the university in 1882. He wrote many papers on geometrical optics and on molecular physics, but his great claim to remembrance is that he first suggested, “on the basis of Faraday’s law of Electrolysis, that an absolute unit of quantity of electricity exists in that amount of it which attends each chemical bond or valency and gave the name, now generally adopted, of electron to this small quantity.” He proposed the electronic theory of the origin of the complex ether vibrations which proceed from a molecule emitting light.

John Tyndall (b. Leighlin Bridge, Co. Carlow, 1820, d. 1893), F.R.S., professor at the Royal Institution and a fellow-worker in many ways with Huxley, especially on the subject of glaciers. He wrote also on heat as a mode of motion and was the author of many scientific papers, but will, perhaps, be best remembered as the author of a Presidential Address to the British Association in Belfast (1874), which was the highwater mark of the mid-Victorian materialism at its most triumphant moment.


Richard Kirwan (b. Galway 1733, d. 1812), F.R.S. A man of independent means, he devoted himself to the study of chemistry and mineralogy and was awarded the Copley medal of the Royal Society. He published works on mineralogy and on the analysis of mineral waters, and was the first in Ireland to publish analyses of soils for agricultural purposes, a research which laid the foundation of scientific agriculture in Great Britain and Ireland.

Maxwell Simpson (b. Armagh 1815, d. 1902), F.R.S., held the chair of chemistry in Queen’s College, Cork, for twenty years and published a number of papers in connection with his subject and especially with the behavior of cyanides, with the study of which compounds his name is most associated.

Cornelius O’Sullivan (b. Brandon, 1841, d. 1897), F.R.S., was for many years chemist to the great firm of Bass & Co., brewers at Burton-on-Trent, and in that capacity became one of the leading exponents of the chemistry of fermentation in the world.

James Emerson Reynolds (b. Dublin 1844), F.R.S., professor of chemistry, Trinity College, Dublin, for many years, discovered the primary thiocarbamide and a number of other chemical substances, including a new class of colloids and several groups of organic and other compounds of the element silicon.

Among others only the names of the following can be mentioned:–Sir Robert Kane (b. Dublin 1809, d. 1890), professor of chemistry in Dublin and founder and first director of the Museum of Industry, now the National Museum. He was president of Queen’s College, Cork, as was William K. Sullivan (b. Cork 1822, d. 1890), formerly professor of chemistry in the Catholic University. Sir William O’Shaughnessy Brooke, F.R.S. (b. Limerick 1809, d. 1889), professor of chemistry and assay master in Calcutta, is better known as the introducer of the telegraphic system into India and its first superintendent.


William Henry Harvey (b. Limerick 1814, d. 1866), F.R.S., was a botanist of very great distinction. During a lengthy residence in South Africa, he made a careful study of the flora of the Cape of Good Hope and published The Genera of South African Plants. After this he was made keeper of the Herbarium, Trinity College, Dublin, but, obtaining leave of absence, travelled in North and South America, exploring the coast from Halifax to the Keys of Florida, in order to collect materials for his great work, Nereis Boreali-Americana, published by the Smithsonian Institution. Subsequently he visited Ceylon, Australia, Tasmania, New Zealand, and the Friendly and Fiji Islands, collecting algae. The results were published in his Phycologia Australis. At the time of his death he was engaged on his Flora Capensis, and was generally considered the first authority on algae in the world.

William Archer (b. Co. Down 1837, d. 1897), F.R.S., devoted his life to the microscopic examination of freshwater organisms, especially desmids and diatoms. He attained a very prominent place in this branch of work among men of science. Perhaps his most remarkable discovery was that of Chlamydomyxa labyrinthuloides (in 1868), “one of the most remarkable and enigmatical of all known microscopic organisms.”

George James Allman (b. Cork 1812, d. 1898), F.R.S., professor of botany in Trinity College, Dublin, and afterwarls Regius Professor of natural history in the University of Edinburgh, published many papers on botanical and zoological subjects, but his great work was that on the gymnoblastic Hydrozoa, “without doubt the most important systematic work dealing with the group of Coelenterata that has ever been produced.”

Amongst eminent living members of the class under consideration may be mentioned Alexander Macalister (b. Dublin 1844), F.R.S., professor of anatomy, first in Dublin and now in Cambridge, an eminent morphologist and anthropologist, and Henry Horatio Dixon (b. Dublin), F.R.S., professor of botany in Trinity College, an authority on vegetable physiology, especially problems dealing with the sap.


Samuel Haughton (b. Carlow 1821, d. 1897), F.R.S., after earning a considerable reputation as a mathematician and a geologist, and taking Anglican orders, determined to study medicine and entered the school of that subject in Trinity College. After graduating he became the reformer, it might even be said the re-founder, of that school. He devoted ten years to the study of the mechanical principles of muscular action, and published his Animal Mechanism, probably his greatest work. He will long be remembered as the introducer of the “long drop” as a method of capital execution. He might have been placed in several of the categories which have been dealt with, but that of geologist has been selected, since in the later part of his most versatile career he was professor of geology in Trinity College, Dublin.

Valentine Ball (b. Dublin 1843, d. 1894), F.R.S., a brother of Sir Robert, joined the Geological Survey of India, and in that capacity became an authority not only on geology but also on ornithology and anthropology. His best known work is Jungle-Life in India. In later life he was director of the National Museum, Dublin.


Very brief note can be taken of the many shining lights in Irish medical science. Robert James Graves (1796-1853), F.R.S., after whom is named “Graves’s Disease”, was one of the greatest of clinical physicians. His System of Clinical Medicine was a standard work and was extolled by Trousseau, the greatest physician that France has ever had, in the highest terms of appreciation.

William Stokes (1804-1878), Regius Professor of Medicine in Trinity College, and the author of a Theory and Practice of Medicine, known all over the civilized world, was equally celebrated.

To these must be added Sir Dominic Corrigan (1802-1880), the first Catholic to occupy the position of President of the College of Physicians in Dublin, an authority on heart disease, and the first adequate describer of aortic patency, a form of ailment long called “Corrigan’s Disease”. “Colles’s Fracture” is a familiar term in the mouths of surgeons. It derives its name from Abraham Colles (1773-1843), the first surgeon in the world to tie the innominate artery, as “Butcher’s Saw”, a well-known implement, does from another eminent surgeon; Richard Butcher, Regius Professor in Trinity College in the seventies of the last century.

Sir Rupert Boyce (1863-1911), F.R.S., though born in London, had an Irish father and mother. Entering the medical profession, he was assistant professor of pathology at University College, London, and subsequently professor of pathology in University College, Liverpool, which he was largely instrumental in turning into the University of Liverpool. He was foremost in launching and directing the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, which has had such widespread results all over the world in elucidating the problems and checking the ravages of the diseases peculiar to hot countries. It was for his services in this direction that he was knighted in 1906.

Sir Richard Quain (b. Mallow 1816, d. 1898), F.R.S., spent most of his life in London, where he was for years the most prominent physician. He wrote on many subjects, but the Dictionary of Medicine, which he edited and which bears his name, has made itself and its editor known all over the world.

Sir Almroth Wright (b. 1861), F.R.S., is the greatest living authority on the important subject of vaccino-therapy, which, indeed, may be said to owe its origin to his researches, as do the methods for measuring the protective substances in the human blood. He was the discoverer of the anti-typhoid injection which has done so much to stay the ravages of that disease.


Bindon Blood Stoney (1828-1909), F.R.S., made his reputation first as an astronomer by discovering the spiral character of the great nebula in Andromeda. Turning to engineering, he was responsible for the construction of many important works, especially in connection with the port of Dublin. He was brother of G. J. Stoney.

Sir Charles Parsons (b. 1854), F.R.S., fourth son of the third Earl of Rosse, is the engineer who developed the steam turbine system and made it suitable for the generation of electricity, and for the propulsion of war and mercantile vessels. If he has revolutionized traffic on the water, so on the land has John Boyd Dunlop (still living), who discovered the pneumatic tire with such wide-spread results for motorcars, bicycles, and such means of locomotion.


Admiral Sir Leopold McClintock (b. Dundalk 1819, d. 1907), F.R.S., was one of the great Arctic explorers, having spent eleven navigable seasons and six winters in those regions. He was the chief leader and organizer of the Franklin searches. From the scientific point of view he made a valuable collection of miocene fossils from Greenland, and enabled Haughton to prepare the geological map and memoir of the Parry Archipelago.

John Ball (b. Dublin 1818, d. 1889), F.R.S., educated at Oscott, passed the examination for a high degree at Cambridge, but, being a Catholic, was excluded from the degree itself and any other honors which a Protestant might have attained to. He travelled widely and published many works on the natural history of Europe and South America from Panama to Tierra del Fuego. He was the first to suggest the utilization of the electric telegraph for meteorological purposes connected with storm warnings.

Space ought to be found for a cursory mention of that strange person, Dionysius Lardner (1793-1859), who by his Lardner’s Cyclopaedia in 132 vols., his Cabinet Library, and his Museum of Science and Art, did much to popularize science in an unscientific day.


The principal sources of information are the National Dictionary of Biography; the Obituary Notices of the Royal Society (passages in inverted commas are from these); “Who’s Who” (for living persons); Healy: Ireland’s Ancient Schools and Scholars; Hyde: Literary History of Ireland; Joyce: Social History of Ancient Ireland; Moore: Medicine in the British Isles.

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!