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The University of Edinburgh, Where Joseph Black Undertook Part of His Studies
The University of Edinburgh, Where Joseph Black Undertook Part of His Studies

Joseph Black lived from 16 April 1728 to 6 December 1799. He was an eminent Scottish physicist and chemist, a renowned teacher, and a practicing medical doctor: and the chemistry buildings at both Edinburgh and Glasgow Universities are named after him. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.

Joseph Black was born in Bordeaux in France in 1728, one of the 15 children of an Ulster wine merchant of Scots descent based in the town. At the age of 12, Joseph went to school in Belfast to learn Greek and Latin and at the age of 16 he went to Glasgow University, where he studied arts for four years. In 1748 he started to study medicine and attended the chemistry lectures recently instituted there by the Professor of Medicine, William Cullen.

Black went on to become Professor Cullen's laboratory assistant before moving to Edinburgh University in 1752 to continue his medical studies. In 1756, Black returned to Glasgow University, as Professor of Anatomy and Botany and Lecturer in Chemistry. The following year he became Professor of Medicine at Glasgow when Professor Cullen took up a post at Edinburgh University.

Although Black never married, he had a very active social life and became an eminent member of the literary and scientific circles in what became known as the Scottish Enlightenment: he was also renowned for his flute playing. Amongst those he knew well were Adam Smith, David Hume, Alexander Carlyle and James Hutton.

Early in his scientific career, Black studied the properties of magnesia alba, a basic magnesium carbonate that led to his discovery of what he called "fixed air": carbon dioxide. This was the first time that anyone had shown that air was made up of more than one gas. And, almost as a footnote to this work, in 1755 he became the first person to recognise magnesium as an element. After his return to Glasgow in 1756, he met James Watt, who sparked an interest in the properties of objects and substances when heated: Black's work on this was the first systematic investigation of what later became known as thermodynamics. Experiments he undertook led to the discovery of the concepts of latent heat and specific heat; helped inform James Watt's parallel work on the development of the steam engine; and transformed the way heat was measured.

Joseph Black was a highly effective teacher, famous for his practical demonstrations during lectures. He moved back to Edinburgh University to focus on chemistry in 1766, and students from across Europe and as far afield as North America came to hear him teach, his course of lectures taking place five times each week between November and March.

Meanwhile, Black was also pursuing a career as an eminent medical doctor. Amongst his patients were the philosopher David Hume. He was also consulted over the illness of the nurse of Walter Scott, then still a child. He diagnosed her with consumption, or tuberculosis, which lost the nurse her job, but possibly saved the life of the future Sir Walter Scott.

Joseph Black himself never enjoyed the best of health, suffering from breathing problems caused by a childhood illness; and later in his life he suffered badly from rheumatism and, after becoming a vegetarian, from vitamin deficiencies. Black died in Edinburgh on 6 December 1799, and is buried in Greyfriars churchyard.

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