Five Irish Scientists Who Put Chemistry on the Map

1. Robert Boyle

Robert Boyle Born in Lismore Castle, Co Waterford, Robert Boyle (1627–91) became known as the ‘father of chemistry’ thanks to his work The Sceptical Chymist.

At the time the accepted theory of the elements was that there were five types of matter – fire, earth, air, water and ether. Instead, Boyle proposed that matter was made of atoms or clusters of atoms – one of the most basic concepts of modern chemistry.

Boyle examined the central role of air in combustion, sound transmission, and breathing. He also described the inverse relationship between the volume of a gas and pressure (when the pressure rises, the volume decreases and vice versa).

This rule is known as Boyle’s Law and has many practical and interesting applications, such as in diving. When divers descend into a deep body of water, the pressure on the lungs can double and the volume of air inside them halves. If divers didn’t exhale as they resurfaced, their lungs could explode.

Lismore Castle on Google Maps »

Find out more about him at RobertBoyle.ie

2. Robert Kane

Robert KaneRobert Kane (1809–90) had a life steeped in science from an early age. His father organised and participated in the 1798 Rebellion, then fled to France where he studied chemistry. On returning to Dublin, his father set up the Kane Company, which specialised in sulphuric acid.

It was here that Robert learned about chemistry. He published his first paper in 1828 before studying medicine in Trinity College Dublin and pharmacy in Paris.

He founded the Dublin Journal of Medical Science, which continues to be published today, as the Irish Journal of Medical Science. He became a professor of chemistry and went on to become the first president of University College Cork (then Queen’s College Cork) where a science facility – the Kane Building – is named in his honour.

The Kane Building at UCC on Google Maps »

3. Kathleen Lonsdale

Kathleen LonsdaleKathleen Lonsdale (1903–71) was born in Newbridge, Co Kildare. She moved to Essex when she was a child and was the only female to participate in classes in the local high school for boys so that she could study chemistry, physics and maths.

In 1922 she was awarded a research fellowship at University College London worth £180 per year, an enormous amount at the time. She studied pharmacology and X-ray crystallography – a technique for understanding the structure of molecules such as benzene.

She went on to become the first female president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. In 2001, NUI Maynooth named the Lonsdale Prize after her. It is awarded to the highest-scoring chemistry students at degree level. The Kathleen Lonsdale Building is named in her honour at the University of Limerick.

The Kathleen Lonsdale Building on Google Maps »

4. Mary, Countess of Rosse

Mary Rosse (1812–85) was a pioneer in the then new technology of photography and the first woman to win the Silver medal award of the Royal Photographic Society of Ireland for her work in the 1850s. Her photographs are among some of the earliest taken in Ireland.

Her interest in photography began at a time when the technology was largely being developed through chemical experiments – the highly stable photographic chemicals which are common today had not yet been invented.

In the 1840s her husband William Parsons had spent some time experimenting with daguerreotype photography – an extremely hazardous process involving a potentially lethal combination of chemicals. Mary subsequently experimented with various early photographic techniques, and used them to photograph the area around Birr Castle.

After her death the laboratory where she worked had lain untouched, but it was rediscovered in 1983, and the equipment and chemicals she used and many of her negatives and stereoscopic prints were found on shelves and in wooden boxes.

Mary’s photographs of the Birr Castle Telescope were then used in the restoration of the telescope during the 1990s, making it possible to recreate the telescope as it would have appeared over one and a half centuries ago.

Birr Castle on Google Maps »

5. George Johnston Stoney

George Johnston Stoney George Stoney (1826–1912) also worked for a time on the Birr Castle telescope. He was born in the town and studied at Trinity College Dublin. After four years as astronomy assistant to Parsons, he taught at University College Galway, and worked in many scientific fields, from physics to mathematics.

Stoney’s most notable contribution to science and chemistry was very small – literally. He conceived of a fundamental unit quantity of electricity, which later went on to become called the electron. Stoney was the first person to propose its existence and calculate its size.