Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Price, James

PRICE, JAMES (1752–1783), chemist, son of James Higginbotham, was born in London in 1752. He entered Magdalen Hall, Oxford, as a gentleman commoner, matriculating on 15 April 1772, and proceeding M.A. (21 Nov. 1777). Early in 1781 he changed his name to Price, in accordance with the will of a relative who had bequeathed him a fortune (London Med. Journ. 1784, iv. 317). On 10 May 1781 he was elected to the Royal Society, being described in the certificate of recommendation as ‘well versed in various branches of Natural Science, and particularly in Chymistry.’ On 2 July 1782 the degree of M.D. was conferred on him by the university of Oxford, ‘on account of chemical labours’ (Price, Experiments on Mercury, &c., 2nd ed. Introd.)

In 1782 Price decided to repeat before witnesses certain experiments ssimilar to those of the alchemists. Between 7 May and 25 May 1782 he performed, at his laboratory at Stoke, near Guildford, seven experiments, by which it appeared that he possessed a white powder capable of converting fifty times its own weight of mercury into silver, and a red powder capable of converting sixty times its own weight of mercury into gold; the substances being heated together in a crucible with a flux of borax or nitre, or both, and stirred with an iron rod. The witnesses included Lords Onslow, King, and Palmerston, and other men of social, though none of great scientific, rank. The gold and silver alleged to be produced were found genuine on assay, and were exhibited before George III. Price related the experiments in detail in ‘An Account of some Experiments,’ &c., 1782. The descriptions evinced the intelligence and method of a practised chemist, and the book created the greatest sensation. It was summarised at length in the ‘London Chronicle’ (17–19 Oct. 1782), abstracted in Lichtenberg and Forster's ‘Göttingisches Magazin’ (iii. Jahrgang, p. 410), translated by Seyler into German (Dessau, 1783), and reached a second English edition in 1783. Since the time of Robert Boyle [q. v.] alchemy had been entirely discredited in England, and Price himself, in the second edition of his book, declared that while his experiments were incontestable, he regarded the philosopher's stone as a chimera. His reputation as a man of fortune and honour seemed to place him above any suspicion of dishonesty. But in his preface he had declared that his stock of the powders was exhausted, and that the cost of replenishment would be too great in labour and health for him to undertake it. There followed ‘a fierce paper conflict,’ and the Royal Society ‘felt bound to interfere’ (Chambers, Book of Days, i. 602), though the matter was not considered by it officially. Kirwan and Bryan Higgins [q. v.] entreated Price to repeat his experiments or disclose his secret. In October 1782 he owned to Kirwan that he believed he had been deceived, that the mercury sold to him contained gold previously, and that his powder contained arsenic, and that he was satisfied to pass for ‘a mere able extractor of gold’ (Bolton, Scientific Letters of Priestley, p. 42). Sir Joseph Banks [q. v.], then president of the Royal Society, reminded him that the honour of the society was at stake as well as his own. Under pressure from his friends, Price finally consented to repeat the experiments. In January 1783, having meanwhile tried to obtain information with regard to German hermetic processes (Göttingisches Magazin, iii. Jahrgang, p. 579), he returned to Guildford. He seems to have undertaken to prepare the powders in six weeks, and failed. His friends disavowed him; and on 3 or 8 Aug. 1783 he committed suicide by drinking a tumblerful of laurelwater, which he had prepared in the previous March. According to Chambers's ‘Book of Days,’ he had previously invited the Royal Society to witness his experiments, and died in the presence of the three members who alone came to the laboratory on the appointed day. It is impossible to decide whether Price was an impostor or a madman. The last hypothesis, adopted at the inquest, is supported by the account of his death in the ‘Göttingisches Magazin’ (iii. Jahrgang, p. 886).

Price left a fortune of ‘120l. a year in real estate, and from ten to twelve thousand pounds in the funds.’ He has been loosely called the ‘last of the alchemists.’

[Authorities quoted; Kopp's Geschichte der Chemie, ii. 164, 254; Kopp's Alchemie, ii. 146, passim; Thomson's Hist. of the Royal Society, App. lviii.; Foster's Alumni Oxon. 1714–1886; Letters of Radcliffe and James (Oxf. Hist. Soc.), p. 221; manuscript journal and other documents of the Royal Society; Jöchers Gelehrten-Lexikon, continued by Adelung, vol. vi.; Reuss's Gelehrtes England; Gent. Mag. 1791, ii. 893; Notes and Queries, 3rd ser. viii. 290, 405.]

P. J. H.