Image Description

The Scientific Revolution

The Birth of the Scientific Revolution

In the late seventeenth century Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Isaac Newton made significant developments in the fields of mathematics and science. Their ideas were very influential and inspired others to study maths, science, and the natural world. The study of chemistry, in particular, developed rapidly and played a significant part in feeding the industrial revolution.

In France, Antoine Lavoisier played a significant role. His interest in air quality lead him to identify oxygen in 1778 and hydrogen in 1783, building on the work of Joseph Black and Joseph Priestley. Lavoisier wrote the first list of chemical elements and identified or predicted several. Sadly, Lavoisier was guillotined during the French Revolution in 1794 at the age of 50.

Joseph Black

Joseph Black was a Professor of the Practice of Medicine at the University of Glasgow in 1757, having discovered the gas that would be called carbon dioxide – and inspired Antoine Lavoisier as we have seen.

At Glasgow University, Joseph Black developed a theory of latent heat around 1761. This was the first of the theories on thermodynamics. At that time, a certain James Watt worked as an instrument maker at the university. Black and Watt became friends and performed experiments together. Watt went on to greatly improve the efficiency of steam engines.

In 1766 Joseph Black moved to the University of Edinburgh, where he devoted the rest of his life to lecturing in chemistry. He became one of the most popular lecturers of his age, and it was fashionable to attend his talks and experiments. Hundreds of people were inspired by his teaching.

Joseph Black died in 1799.

Humphry Davy

We covered Humphry Davy's miners' safety lamp – invented in 1815 – earlier in this course. Born in 1778, Davy is more famous as a chemist. Between 1807 and 1809, he discovered potassium, sodium, calcium, strontium, barium, magnesium, and boron. He also created the nickname "laughing gas" for nitrous oxide and was one of the pioneers of electrochemistry.

He was incredibly influential in the developing field of chemistry, stimulating theories and studies that would carry on through the nineteenth century.

Injured in an explosion in his laboratory in 1813, Davy hired Michael Faraday as his assistant. Faraday would go on to become one of the most famous and important experimental chemists of the nineteenth century, developing the study of electricity, magnetism, and electrochemistry.

Humphry Davy was elected President of the Royal Society in 1820, but his irritable nature and lack of diplomacy made him unpopular. He left the society in 1827 as his health decline, and died of a stroke in 1829.


Medicine began to be formalised as a discipline through the eighteenth century. The University of Edinburgh Medical School, established in 1726, is the oldest medical school in the United Kingdom. It developed a strong reputation for the teaching of medicine, anatomy, and surgery and was widely considered the best medical school in the English speaking world for 150 years.

Famously, Burke and Hare committed 16 murders in 1828, selling the bodies to Edinburgh Medical School for dissection. Hare confessed and turned King's Evidence against Burke, who was found guilty of murder and hanged in 1829 – his body, ironically, being dissected at Edinburgh Medical School. Hare was given immunity from prosecution and fled to England.


Probably the most important medical development of the eighteenth century was that of vaccination for smallpox.

Smallpox is a virulent disease responsible for the deaths of millions of people across the centuries. As many as 60% of the population would catch the disease and, with a death rate of around 30%, it is estimated that it killed 400,000 people per year in the eighteenth century, with a similar number being made blind.

Inoculation had been practiced in China and the East for hundreds of years but was largely unknown in Europe. Reports on eastern inoculation practice were submitted to the Royal Society in London in 1700, but it was Lady Mary Wortley Montagu who brought the practice to Britain. She was the wife of the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire and was stationed in Constantinople (now Istanbul) in Turkey. She had survived the disease in 1716 and, in March 1717, she observed Turkish women taking pus from a mild smallpox blister and introducing it into scratched skin of the arm or leg of their children. This resulted in a mild fever for the children but gave them immunity from the full severity of smallpox.

In 1718 Lady Mary had her son inoculated by this method while they were in Turkey. The family returned to London, and in 1721, Lady Mary had her daughter inoculated. This was the first such treatment in Britain and attracted the interest of the Royal Family. Seven prisoners in Newgate Prison were offered the chance to volunteer for inoculation and escape execution. They all survived and were released. The treatment spread through the wealthy families of Britain.

Edward Jenner, born in 1749, and by 1773 was established as a family doctor in a small English country town. He is credited with advancing the study of angina, but it is for vaccination against smallpox that he is most remembered. Jenner studied the disease of cowpox. Cowpox is similar to smallpox but less virulent and, at that time, was often caught by dairy farmers and milk maids from their cows. Jenner noticed that those that caught cowpox were immune to smallpox. Jenner proposed that the pus from cowpox blisters could be used to immunise people against smallpox. He tested his theory on an eight-year-old boy who he treated with cowpox pus and, later, tried to infect with smallpox – This is an experiment that wouldn't get past many modern medical ethics committees!

The boy did not catch smallpox, and Jenner tested his theory on another 23 subjects, including his 11 month old son. He published his research and findings in 1799, 1800, and 1801. His discovery spread rapidly, and he was awarded £10,000 by parliament in 1802, and another £20,000 in 1807.

Napoleon, who at the time was at war with Britain, had all his French troops vaccinated, and awarded Jenner a medal. At the request of Jenner, he released two English prisoners of war and permitted their return home.

Edward Jenner continued to study and promote vaccination until his death in 1823.

Thank you for listening to this lesson. In the next lesson, we will cover further scientific developments and their application to industry.

Image Description
Written by

Ross Maynard