Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Watson, William (1715-1787)

WATSON, Sir WILLIAM (1715–1787), physician, naturalist, and electrician, born on 3 April 1715 in St. John's Street, near Smithfield, London, was the son of a tradesman. He was entered at the Merchant Taylors' school in 1726, and in 1730 was apprenticed to an apothecary named Richardson. From his youth he made many excursions into the country to search for plants, having a strong taste for botany, and he obtained the premium given annually by the Apothecaries' Company for proficiency in that subject. In 1738 Watson married and set up in business for himself. He became distinguished for his scientific knowledge, and on 9 April 1741 was elected F.R.S., though he does not seem to have published any researches previous to this date. Between this and his death, however, he contributed to the ‘Philosophical Transactions’ more than fifty-eight original papers and summaries of the work of others, bearing on natural history, electricity, and medicine, many of which are of considerable importance. Watson was a constant attendant at the regular meetings of the Royal Society and at the private associations of its members, which met on Thursdays, first at the Mitre in Fleet Street, and later at the Crown and Anchor in the Strand (Pulteney, op. cit. ii. 333). In 1745 he was awarded by Sir Hans Sloane [q. v.], as surviving executor of Sir Godfrey Copley [q. v.], the Copley medal for his electrical research. Later, Sloane, with whom he had become very intimate, nominated him trustee of the British Museum, and after its establishment in Montagu House in 1756 Watson showed great assiduity in the internal arrangements and in furnishing the garden with a large collection of plants On 6 Sept. 1757 he was created doctor of physic of the university of Halle, and about the same time of Wittemberg; he had already been elected member of the Royal Academy of Madrid. After having been disfranchised from the Society of Apothecaries he began to practise as a physician, and after examination was admitted L.R.C.P. on 22 Dec. 1759. About this time he moved from Aldersgate Street to Lincoln's Inn Fields. In October 1762 he was chosen physician to the Foundling Hospital, and retained this office till his death. On 30 Sept. 1784 he was elected fellow of the Royal College of Physicians. He was censor of the college in 1785 and 1786, and was knighted on 6 Oct. in the latter year, being one of those deputed by the college to congratulate George III on his escape from assassination by Margaret Nicholson. He was also a trustee of the College of Physicians, and for some time vice-president of the Royal Society. He died in Lincoln's Inn Fields on 10 May 1787. ‘Watson,’ says Pulteney, ‘was a most exact œconomist of his time … up usually in summer at six or earlier;’ he was in speech ‘clear, forcible, and energetic,’ ‘a careful observer of men,’ and endowed with an extraordinary memory, being called by his friends ‘the living lexicon of botany;’ he was, as a physician, of particularly humane temper.

Watson had a large foreign correspondence with Jean André Peyssonel, Clairaut, Bose of Wittemberg, the Abbé Nollet, Bernard de Jussieu, and others. In 1748 he showed civility to the naturalist Peter Kalm (1715–1779), a pupil of Linnæus, and in 1761 to Dr. Peter Simon Pallas of St. Petersburg (July 1761 to April 1762).

Watson contributed his first papers on electricity to the Royal Society in the course of 1745 and February 1746 (Phil. Trans. xliii. 481, xliv. 41, 695), and published them separately under the title ‘Experiments … [on] the Nature … of Electricity’ in 1746, a second edition being published in the same year. He notices therein that although ice, as well as water, is an ‘electric’ or non-conductor, moist air conducts, and he explains thereby the failure of electrical experiments in wet weather. On 30 Oct. 1746 (loc. cit. xliv. 704) Watson read his ‘Sequel to the Experiments … [on] Electricity,’ also published separately in the same year; he shows therein by his own experiments and those of his friend John Bevis [q. v.] that the ‘stroke’ of the recently discovered Leyden jar was, cæteris paribus, proportional not to its size, but to the conducting surfaces of its coatings—a point to which he returned later (Phil. Trans. 1748, xlv. 102). He notices that the ‘electrical force always describes a circuit’ (loc. cit. p. 718), and propounds the theory that in an electrical machine the glass globes, &c., have not the electrical power in themselves, but only serve as ‘the first movers and determiners of that power.’ He agrees with the Abbé Nollet in regarding electricity as existing normally everywhere in a state of equilibrium, and regards the electrical machine as comparable to a pump which accumulates electricity on the bodies we term ‘electrified.’ Watson's theory, though less clearly formulated, is hardly distinguishable from that of Benjamin Franklin. In his next paper (read 21 Jan. 1748, loc. cit. xlv. 93) Watson elaborates this theory and defines it more closely, quoting at the same time from Franklin's famous first letter (dated 1 June 1747) on the subject to Peter Collinson [q. v.] During 1747 and 1748 Watson, in conjunction with Martin Folkes [q. v.], then president, and a number of other members of the Royal Society, along with Bevis, carried out a long series of experiments on ‘the velocity of electric matter’ across the Thames at Westminster Bridge, at Highbury, and at Shooter's Hill, Watson planning and directing all the operations. They found that no appreciable interval could be perceived between the completion of the circuit 12,276 feet long, uniting the two coatings of a Leyden jar, and the receipt of the shock by an observer in the middle of the circuit; they conceived that the velocity of electricity was ‘instantaneous.’ In 1751 Watson, then ‘the most interested and active person in the kingdom in everything relating to electricity’ (Priestley), took great trouble to demonstrate the fallacy of certain statements of Georg Matthias Bose (1710–1761) and Johann Heinrich Winkler (1703–1770). In February 1752 he gave an account of the experiments on the electrical discharge in vacuo, on which he had been occupied since 1747, which, together with those of Nollet, are the first on the subject. In experimental details he was helped by John Smeaton [q. v.] and by Lord Charles Cavendish. He gives an accurate account of the phenomena, finds that rarefied air conducts electricity, though not so well as metals, and compares the discharge to the aurora borealis. On 16 Dec. 1762 he read before the Royal Society the substance of a letter to Lord Anson, first lord of the admiralty, advocating the use of the lightning conductors of Franklin for the powder magazine then being constructed at Purfleet. The Royal Society was formally consulted in the matter, and a committee was appointed to consider it, consisting of Watson, Henry Cavendish [q. v.], Franklin, John Robertson (1712–1776) [q. v.], and Benjamin Wilson [q. v.]; they reported favourably in 1772.

Watson's electrical experiments became famous outside scientific circles. George III (then Prince of Wales), the Duke of Cumberland, and other fashionable people went to see them at his house in Aldersgate Street.

In 1750 (loc. cit. xlvi. 584) Watson communicated to the Royal Society ‘several papers concerning a new semi-metal called platina.’ The credit of the introduction of platinum has on this account been ascribed to Watson, and also to his namesake, Richard Watson [q. v.], bishop of Llandaff. The first and most important of the papers is by William Brownrigg [q. v.], who had himself been given the specimens of ‘platina di Pinto’ from the Spanish West Indies by Charles Wood nine years previously, and Brownrigg deserves most credit in the matter, Watson's paper being merely a commentary on Brownrigg's. In 1757 (Gent. Mag. xxvii. 6) Watson made the obvious but important practical suggestion that instead of covering the lead water pipes, used to supply houses, with horse-dung, to prevent them from freezing, these should be provided with two cocks, so as to cut off the supply and empty them during frost.

The most important of Watson's botanical papers is that on the Star-puff ball (geaster) which first drew the attention of continental botanists to his work (Phil. Trans. xliii. 234, read 20 Dec. 1744). Many of his botanical papers are historical summaries, showing great knowledge and perspicacity. On 7 May 1752 (ib. xlvii. 445) he read a long account of a manuscript treatise by De Peyssonel, proving that coral was of animal and not vegetable origin, which had been communicated to the Paris Academy of Sciences in 1727, but neglected. In 1754 (ib. xlviii. 615) he recognised that the holly is ‘polygamous.’ In the ‘Gentleman's Magazine,’ 1754, p. 555, Watson published over his initials a notice of Linnæus's Species plantarum, in which the author set forth his new method of nomenclature, and pronounced it to be the ‘masterpiece of the most compleat naturalist the world has ever seen,’ but nevertheless criticises certain details. In the following year (Gent. Mag. xxv. 317) Linnæus replied to his anonymous critic, whom he calls ‘in re herbaria solidissimum et honestissimum, simul et mitissimum judicem.’ Watson did much to introduce the Linnæan system into England. He wrote a number of medical memoirs dealing with cases of poisoning by fungi, &c.; but his chief medical work deals with epidemics. In December 1762 he published (Phil. Trans. lii. 646) a letter to his friend John Huxham [q. v.] on the ‘catarrhal disorder’ (influenza) of May 1762, and the dysentery that followed in the autumn. In February 1763 (loc. cit. liii. 10) he published an interesting cure of severe muscular rigidity by means of electricity. He published various papers in the ‘London Medical Observations’ (iii. 35, iv. 78, 132) ‘on putrid measles’ (see Creighton, Epidemics in Britain, ii. 705, iv. 321). In 1768 Watson published as a pamphlet ‘An Account of a Series of Experiments instituted with a view of ascertaining the most successful Method of inoculating the Smallpox.’ Watson found that preparatory drugs had no effect, that matter from natural or inoculated smallpox produced the same result, and that it was inadvisable to inoculate children under three years of age.

A portrait of Watson in oils, by L. F. Abbot, given by the sitter, and an engraving therefrom by Thornthwaite (1767) are in the possession of the Royal Society. He had a massive though not handsome face, with highly arched eyebrows and large orbits.

Watson left one son, and a daughter, married to Edward Beadon, rector of North Stoneham, Hampshire, brother of Richard Beadon [q. v.], bishop of Bath and Wells. The son is probably to be identified with the William Watson (1744–1825?) jun., M.D., born on 28 Aug. or 8 Sept. 1744. He was knighted on 6 March 1796 (Thomson, Hist. of the Royal Society), elected F.R.S. on 10 Dec. 1767, and admitted on 19 May 1768. He contributed a paper on the blue shark to the ‘Philosophical Transactions’ (lxviii. 789). He died about 1825.

[Clark's Georgian Era, iii. 166; Chalmers's Biogr. Dict.; Gent. Mag. 1787, i. 454; Robinson's Reg. of Merchant Taylors' School, ii. 68; Poggendorff's Biogr. Literar. Handwörterbuch, 1863 passim; Pulteney's Sketches of the Progress of Botany in England, 1790, ii. 295–340 (the most complete memoir; probably written from personal knowledge); Munk's Coll. of Phys. ii. 298; Thomson's Hist. of the Royal Soc., 1812, App. p. xlii; Record of the Royal Soc., 1897; Creighton's Epidemics in Britain, 1894, ii. passim; Maty's Index to the Phil. Trans. vols. i–lxx.; Watson's own papers; Priestley's Hist. of Electricity, 5th edit. 1794, passim; Hoppe's Geschichte der Elektricität, passim; Wiedemann's Lehre von Elektricität, passim; information from Prof. Marcus Hartog of Queen's Coll., Cork.]

P. J. H.