Famous Irish Scientists

William Reville, University College, Cork.

When most people think of Ireland’s cultural heritage they think of things like ‘The Island of Saints and Scholars’, The Book of Kells, our great writers, Irish music, and so on. Ireland has little by way of a scientific heritage – right? Wrong.

We have quite a decent scientific heritage that we should take pride in and teach to our children. As a people we have a proven aptitude for science and the current Government support for Irish Science will surely reinvigorate that capacity to do great things.

In this article I will outline brief details of some major figures in the history of Irish science.

Formicidae and Drosphilidae, Micromondi Exhibition, Science Museum
Robert Boyle (1627-1691) was born at Lismore Castle, Co. Waterford. Boyle, sometimes called The Father of Chemistry, is a in the history of science. In 1661 he published The Sceptical Chemist. Alchemy, the pseudo-scientific predecessor of chemistry was questioned by Boyle, who taught that the proper object of chemistry was to determine the composition of substances. He coined the term ‘analysis’. In 1662 he formulated Boyle’s Law which states that the pressure and volume of a gas are inversely related at constant temperature.
William ‘Guillermo’ Bowles (1720-1780) was born near Cork and spent most of his life in continental Europe. He studied law in England and natural history, chemistry and metallurgy in Paris. He wrote the first modern scientific description of Spain. He helped established Spain’s Natural History Museum and became its principal scientists. In 1775 he published his Introduction to the Natural History and Physical Geography of Spain.
Francis Beaufort (1774-1857) was born in Navan, Co. Meath and became the British Navy’s greatest hydrographer and mapmaker. He is best known as the author of the table which classifies the velocity and force of winds at sea – The Beaufort Scale. He also developed a system of classifying the weather’s various states by letters of the alphabet.
Reverend Nicholas Callan (1799-1864) was born near Ardee, Co. Louth. He was appointed Professor of Natural Philosophy at Maynooth in 1826. Callan acquired a great interest in electrical phenomena and his most notable contribution was the invention of the induction coil, the forerunner of the modern step-up voltage transformer.
Edward J Conway was appointed to the newly-founded Chair of Biochemistry and Pharmacology in University College Dublin in 1932.  He established an internationally recognised research laboratory that attracted support from the Rockefeller Foundation, the US National Institutes of Health, the US Air Force and the Medical Research Council of Ireland.  Conway successfully explained how differences between fluids inside and outside cells are established and maintained.  He also explained the origin of hydrochloric acid in gastric juice and carried out a very well regarded analysis of the evolution of ancient seas.  He developed a microburette and diffusion unit that became a standard method of microanalysis.  He was appointed a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1947.
William Parsons, Third Earl of Rosse (1800-1867), was born in York, England, and brought up at Birr Castle, Co. Offaly. In 1845 Parsons built the then-largest telescope in the world at Birr, a distinction retained for 70 years. A main purpose in building the telescope was to study the status of the sun and the star system (galaxy) in which it lies. The construction of the telescope, particularly of the 72 inch mirror, was a wonderful feat of engineering. The telescope could see further into space than any other instrument of the time and Parsons discovered that many galaxies are spiral in shape.
George Boole (1815-1864), born in Lincoln, England, was the first Professor of Mathematics at Queen’s College, Cork (University College Cork today). Boole, sometimes called The Father of Computer Science, developed his system of Boolean Algebra while in Cork. This is used today in the design and operation of electronic computers and electronic hardware responsible for modern technology.
William Rowan Hamilton (1805-1864), born in Dublin, became Professor of Astronomy at TCD and Royal Astronomer of Ireland. At the age of 9 he knew 13 languages. Hamilton introduced the terms scalar and vector into mathematics and he invented the method of quanternions as a new algebraic approach to 3-D geometry, which turned out to be the seed of much modern algebra.
John Tyndall (1820-1893) was born in County Carlow, he became one of greatest scientists of 19th century. Professor of Natural Philosophy (Physics) at The Royal Institution, he did pioneering work on radiant heat, germ theory of disease, glacier motion, sound, and diffusion of light in the atmosphere. He was the first to explain how scattering of light in atmosphere causes blue colour in sky. He explained how the gases in the atmosphere trap heat and keep the earth warm. He invented the light pipe which later led to development of fibre optics.
William Thomson (1824-1907) (Lord Kelvin) first Baron Kelvin (1866). Born in Belfast. Professor of Natural Philosophy (Physics), Glasgow University. World renowned physicist. Introduced the absolute scale of temperature – the Kelvin scale. His work on conversion of energy led to Second Law of Thermodynamics. Closely involved in laying first successful transatlantic telegraph cable under sea between Ireland and Newfoundland in 1866.
George Francis Fitzgerald (1851-1901) was born in Dublin and became Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy at TCD. He is best remembered for his proposal that a moving body contracts in the direction of its motion, but that this contraction cannot be measured because moving rulers shrink in the same proportion. This was a significant step towards Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity.
George Johnstone Stoney (1826-1911) was born in Dun Laoire and became Professor of Natural Philosophy at Queen’s College, Galways (NUI Galway today). His most notable scientific work was his conception and calculation of the magnitude of the ‘atom’ of electricity, for which he proposed the name ‘electron’.
J.D. Bernal (1901-1971) was born in Nenagh, Co. Tipperary. Professor Physics, Birbeck College, University of London. Developed the technique of modern X-ray crystallography and led a group that used the technique to work out the 3-D structure of proteins, nucleic acids and viruses.
Ernest Walton (1903-1997), born in Dungarvan, Co. Waterford, was a pioneer nuclear physicist and is Ireland’s only science Nobel Laureate. He built the first successful particle accelerator with John Cockroft at Cambridge with which they disintegrated lithium (‘split the atom’) in 1931. Walton became Professor of Natural and Experiemental Philosophy at TCD in 1947. He shared the 1951 Nobel Prize for physics with Cockroft.
Kathleen Lonsdale (1903-1971) was born in Newbridge, Co. Kildare and became Professor of Chemistry at University College, London. She did much important work in X-ray crystallography, including a demonstration that the benzene ring is flat. She was the first woman elected to Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1945. She was a dedicated pacifist and suffered a short term in jail in 1943 for her convictions.
Denis Burkitt (1911-1993) was born in Eniskillen, graduated as a physician, and became world renowned pioneer in public medicine. Worked in public service for many years in Uganda. First described a cancer called Burkitt’s Lymphoma and showed that it is spread by mosquitoes who transmit the disease by spreading the Epstein-barr virus. Returned to London 1966 and led campaign advocating the importance of fibre in the diet.
John Bell (1928-1990) was born in Belfast. He joined CERN (the European Research Organisation) in Geneva in 1960. Here he developed a set of equations called Bell’s Inequalities that are of fundamental importance in quantum physics. Bell was a leading theoretical physicist of his generation.
Jocelyn Bell Burnell (1943-) was born in Lurgan, Co. Armagh and is now Professor of Physics at The Open University. She discovered pulsars – rapidly rotating neutron stars – in 1967 when working as a research student at Cambridge. She continues to study pulsars today.

From the foundation of the modern Irish State until very recently, science has not received the respect it deserves in Ireland. We chose instead to fire our imaginations almost exclusively with other things. But, Irish science is back and, given our past achievements, there is every reason to hope for great things to come.

Two excellent little books

Some People and Places (and More People and Places) in Irish Science and Technology, (eds. Charles Mollan, William Davis and Brendan Finucane) have been published by The Royal Irish Academy (1985, 1990).

(This article first appeared in The Irish Times, December 14, 2000.)