Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Vigani, John Francis

VIGANI, JOHN FRANCIS (1650?–1712), the first professor of chemistry in the university of Cambridge, was born at Verona about the middle of the seventeenth century. He travelled in Spain, France, and Holland, and studied mining, metallurgy, and pharmacy in the countries he visited. It does not appear that he attended any regular course of instruction, or took the degree of doctor of medicine, or had any recognised qualification. In 1682 he published a small treatise, entitled ‘Medulla Chymiæ.’ It was dedicated to a Dutchman, Joannes de Waal, and was printed and published at Danzig. During this year he probably arrived in England, first settling in Newark-on-Trent. About 1683 he took up his residence at Cambridge, and began to give private tuition in chemistry and pharmacy; for apparently he had at first no connection with any college. In 1692 he was invited to write a treatise on chemistry. He carried the preparation of it some length, but, unfortunately, it was never completed. By this time he had become an acknowledged teacher of the subject in Cambridge, and, though still independent of university support, had acquired considerable reputation.

His long-continued labours and success as a teacher were finally recognised by the university, for in 1703 a grace passed the senate for ‘investing with the title of professor of chemistry John Francis Vigani, a native of Verona, who had taught chemistry with reputation in Cambridge for twenty years previously.’ In 1705 he was lecturing on pharmaceutical chemistry at Queens' College, and, if one can rely upon the controversial pamphlets which were called into existence by Dr. Bentley's action as master of Trinity, it is likely that Vigani, as newly created professor, gave instruction in the laboratory which had been constructed in that college by the master, much against the wish of the senior fellows.

During all these years Vigani spent part of his time regularly in Newark. He was buried there in February 1712. The vacancy in the professorship which was occasioned by his death was filled in 1713 by the appointment of J. Waller, B.D.

Vigani married, about 1682, shortly after his arrival in England, and his wife was possibly a native of Newark. A daughter Frances was baptised there in January 1683; another, Jane, in March 1684. His wife, whose name was Elizabeth, died at Newark at the close of 1711.

The treatise, ‘Medulla Chymiæ,’ by which Vigani is remembered was originally a tiny volume of twenty-nine pages (Danzig, 1682). It was considerably enlarged, and editions appeared in 1683, 1685, 1693, and 1718–19. It is not, and does not profess to be, a general treatise, but, as the author himself explains, it was intended to record his own experiments and improvements in the preparation of certain compounds. It would be therefore unfair to judge from it of the extent of Vigani's knowledge. There is abundant evidence that he knew far more than he has set down in his book, and he has been commended by no less competent a critic than Stahl for his thoroughly practical skill and avoidance of speculation unsupported by experimental proof. In fact he rather avoided theoretical discussions, referring those who felt interested in them to Boyle, while he himself pursued practical investigation. Among other things, Vigani devised a method for purifying sulphate of iron from copper; for making ammonium sulphate; and for proving that to form a given salt a metallic base takes always the same amount of acid. He also invented a furnace of such construction that it could be easily built up or taken to pieces as required.

Vigani was a man of humour and tact. In all the disputes in which Bentley was involved he acted very judiciously, steered clear of partisanship, and apparently was on good terms with both sides. He never seems to have mastered the English language, and, to judge by the specimens of his composition and spelling which remain, his prelections must have been difficult to follow. According to Abraham de la Pryme [q. v.], who attended his lectures, and who was not without a certain admiration for his talents, Vigani was a great traveller and a learned chemist, but a ‘drunken fellow.’ De la Pryme was probably exaggerating. In one of his letters Vigani emphasises the benefits of a temperate life.

[Acta Eruditorum, 1684; De la Pryme's Diary (Surtees Soc.), 1869, vol. liv.; Stahl's Ausführliche Betrachtung … von den Saltzen, 1723; Maffei's Verona illustrata, parte seconda, 1731; Georgi's Allgemeines europäisches … Bücher-Lexicon, 1742; Scheltema's Staatkundig Nederland, 1805–6; Monk's Life of Bentley, 1830; Hoefer's Histoire de la Chimie, 1842–3; Cooper's Annals of Cambridge, 1852; Willis and Clark's Architecture of the University of Cambridge, 1886; Vigani's Medulla Chymiæ, 1685.]

J. F.-n.