Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wilson, George (1818-1859)

WILSON, GEORGE (1818–1859), chemist and religious writer, son of Archibald Wilson, a wine merchant—who came from Argyllshire—and his wife Janet, was born at Edinburgh on 21 Feb. 1818 with a twin-brother, John, who died in 1836. His elder brother, (Sir) Daniel, is noticed separately. Wilson went to school first to a Mr. Knight, and, with Philip Maclagan and John Alexander Smith, founded a ‘juvenile society for the advancement of knowledge.’ He went in 1828 to the high school, which he left in 1832 to enter the university as a medical student. He was apprenticed at the same time for four years at the laboratory of the Royal Infirmary. He attended the classes of Thomas Charles Hope [q. v.] and Kenneth Kemp for chemistry, and that of (Sir) Robert Christison [q. v.] for materia medica. In September 1837 he passed the examination of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, ‘fell over head and ears in love’ with chemistry (Memoir, p. 98), and became assistant to Christison. About this time he contributed to ‘Maga,’ a university magazine edited by Edward Forbes [q. v.] In 1838 he joined his brother Daniel in London, and shortly after became unpaid assistant to Thomas Graham (1805–1869) [q. v.] at University College, the other assistants being James Young (1811–1883) [q. v.] and Lyon (afterwards Baron) Playfair. With David Livingstone [q. v.], who was a student, Wilson formed a friendship. In Graham's laboratory he prepared his doctor's thesis, ‘On the Existence of Haloid Salts of the Electro-negative Metals’ in solution, an ingenious investigation of the action of hydrobromic acid on gold chloride.

Somewhat disappointed with his position in London, he returned to Edinburgh in April 1839, and in the following June proceeded M.D. In the autumn he went to the British Association meeting at Birmingham, and was present at the first ‘Red Lion’ dinner. He was elected in the same year to the ‘Order’ in Edinburgh founded by Forbes, which included many of the most brilliant students of the university (ib. pp. 225 et seq.).

For medicine Wilson had no taste whatever, and, after some futile applications for other chemical posts and the rejection of a chemical lectureship in one of the smaller schools in London, he received in 1840 a license from the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh to lecture on chemistry, attendance at these lectures being recognised on behalf of candidates for their diploma. His lectures were the first chemistry lectures in what has developed since into the ‘extra-mural’ school. Simultaneously with the beginning of his professional career his health began to fail, and he writes of himself about this time as ‘bankrupt in health, hopes, and fortune.’ A slight injury to his left foot, followed by severe rheumatism, led to its amputation at the ankle by James Syme [q. v.] in January 1843. In a letter to (Sir) James Young Simpson [q. v.] in advocacy of the use of anæsthetics—then strongly combated by some, who regarded them as ‘needless luxuries’—(Simpson, Obstetric Memoirs, ii. 796), he speaks of ‘the black whirlwind of emotion, the horror of great darkness, and the sense of desertion by God and man’ that ‘swept through’ him during the operation. A little later he was attacked by phthisis, of which he realised the gravity, and the rest of his life is the record of an extraordinary and cheerful fight against ill-health. He soon won success as a lecturer, obtained private work as an analyst, and in 1843 was appointed lecturer at several Edinburgh institutions—the Edinburgh Veterinary College, the School of Arts, and the Scottish Institution, a girls' school. In 1844 he joined a congregational church belonging to the independent section, although he still considered himself a baptist. In 1845 he was elected fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. To the Royal Scottish Society of Arts, of which he became president later, among other papers he contributed in 1845 one ‘On the Employment of Oxygen as a Means of Resuscitation in Asphyxia.’ In the same year he began a long series of researches on the distribution of fluorides, which he showed to be present in small quantities in animal and vegetable tissues, in many minerals, and in sea-water.

In 1851 he published in the collection of the ‘Cavendish Society’ a ‘Life of Henry Cavendish [q. v.]’, his most notable performance in scientific history, which became his favourite pursuit. Wilson fully established the priority of Cavendish with regard to the experimental results on which the theory of the composition of water is based; he showed that the advocates of James Watt's claims, including James Patrick Muirhead and Francis, lord Jeffrey [q. v.], had overestimated Watt's merits; but, in spite of much knowledge and labour, he did not fully master the mass of material he had accumulated relating to the ‘water controversy.’ Their common interest in this matter had already in 1846 (Life of Cavendish, p. viii) led to a warm friendship between Wilson and Jeffrey. In 1852 Wilson published a vigorous letter addressed to Spencer Horatio Walpole [q. v.], the home secretary, on ‘The Grievance of University Tests,’ with reference to the chair of chemistry vacant at Glasgow by the death of Thomas Thomson (1773–1852) [q. v.] He published in the same year the ‘Life of Dr. John Reid [q. v.]’ (a personal friend), which reached a second edition immediately. In November 1853 Wilson published in the ‘Edinburgh Monthly Journal of Medical Science’ the first of a long series of papers on ‘Colour-Blindness,’ continued in the ‘Transactions of the Royal Scottish Society of Arts,’ and republished with additions, under the title ‘Researches on Colour-Blindness,’ in 1855. Wilson examined personally 1,154 cases of colour-blindness, and was the first in England to point out the extreme importance of testing railway-servants and sailors for this defect. The researches of the Abbé Moigno (1804–1884), who claimed to have preceded Wilson in this, were unknown to him. The Great Northern Railway at once adopted Wilson's recommendations, and other bodies followed suit. James Clerk Maxwell [q. v.], then working at his colour-top, contributed an appendix to Wilson's book, of which he thought highly.

In February 1855 Wilson was appointed director of the Scottish Industrial Museum about to be founded, and, later in the same year, regius professor of technology in the Edinburgh University. His inaugural lecture, ‘What is Technology?’ was published in extenso. In the autumn of 1856 he prepared for the press at Melrose his ‘Five Gateways of Knowledge,’ a popular and ornate account of the five senses. His opening lecture for the session of 1856–7, ‘On the Physical Sciences which form the Basis of Technology,’ written about the same time, is far more mature than Wilson's other popular lectures, and shows a real grip of the correlation of the various sciences, while his natural exuberance of imagination and diction is chastened. In 1858 William Gregory (1803–1858) [q. v.], then professor of chemistry in the university, died, and Wilson became a candidate for the vacant chair; but, although assured that he would be elected unanimously, he withdrew his candidature on account of his ill-health (Memoir, p. 456). His salary as director of the museum was at the same time increased from 300l. to 400l. a year.

He had weakened steadily from year to year; in November 1859 a cold brought on by exposure proved fatal, and he died on 22 Nov. A public funeral was decided on, and he was buried in the Old Calton burial-ground on 28 Nov. 1859. He was unmarried; his mother, his brother Daniel, his sister Jessie Aitken Wilson (later Mrs. James Sime), his biographer, and another sister, survived him.

Wilson's experimental work, although ingenious and solid, contains little of marked originality; it is by his ‘Life of Cavendish’ and his work on ‘Colour-Blindness’ that he will be chiefly remembered. From the literary point of view his writings, both prose and verse, show a fertile imagination, but little judgment or reserve, although here and there the expression is striking. Religion played an essential part in Wilson's life, and without a trace of either pedantry or unction he was genuinely anxious to exert religious influence over others. He protested strongly against the existence of evil being regarded as other than an unsolved problem; but his religious views do not otherwise differ markedly from those of orthodoxy. By his popular lectures and writings, and still more by his force and charm of character, he exerted considerable influence on his Edinburgh contemporaries.

A steel engraving of Wilson by Lumb Stocks, A.R.A., precedes the ‘Memoir’ by his sister; and there is another engraved portrait prefixed to the ‘Counsels of an Invalid.’

Besides the works mentioned Wilson was the author of:

  1. ‘Chemistry,’ 1st edit. 1850; 2nd edit. revised by Stevenson Macadam, 1866; 3rd edit. revised by H. G. Madan, 1871.
  2. ‘Electricity and the Electric Telegraph,’ 1st edit. 1856; 2nd edit. 1859.
  3. ‘The Five Gateways of Knowledge,’ 1st edit. 1856; 8th edit. 1880.
  4. ‘Memoir of Edward Forbes’ (completed by Sir Archibald Geikie, F.R.S.), 1862.
  5. ‘Religio Chemici,’ essays, chiefly scientific, collected posthumously and edited by Jessie Wilson, 1862.
  6. ‘Counsels of an Invalid,’ letters on religious subjects collected posthumously and edited by his friend, Dr. John Cairns, 1862.

The ‘British Museum Catalogue’ also contains a list of single lectures published separately. The Royal Society's catalogue contains a list of forty-three papers published by Wilson alone, one in conjunction with John Crombie Brown, and one with Johann Georg Forchhammer. Miss Aitken's ‘Memoir’ (original edition 1860, condensed edition 1866) contains a list of Wilson's papers and of his contributions to the ‘British Quarterly Review,’ which include biographical sketches of John Dalton (1766–1844) [q. v.] (1845), William Hyde Wollaston [q. v.] (1849), Robert Boyle [q. v.] (1849), and of his verses published in ‘Blackwood's Magazine’ and ‘Macmillan's Magazine.’ William Charles Henry's ‘Life of Dalton’ (1854) contains an appendix by Wilson on Dalton's ‘Colour-Blindness.’

[Besides the sources quoted, the Memoir of Wilson, by Jessie Aitken Wilson, 1870 (which contains many letters to his brother Daniel, his friend Daniel Macmillan [q. v.], and others), with an appendix by John Henry Gladstone, F.R.S., on Wilson's scientific work; Wilson's books and scientific papers; Brit. Mus. Cat.; Macmillan & Co.'s Bibliography; Trans. Roy. Soc. of Edinburgh, 1857, xxi. 669; Lord Jeffrey's art. on ‘Watt or Cavendish’ in Edinburgh Review, 1848, lxxxvii. 67; Jubilee of the Chemical Society, 1896, pp. 25, 184; Note by J. Syme in London and Edinburgh Journal of Medical Science, 1843, iii. 274; North British Review, art. by Sir David Brewster (?), 1856, xxiv. 325, and Obituary, 1860, xxxii. 226; Obituary by Dr. John Cairns in Macmillan's Magazine, 1860, i. 199; Brown's Horæ Subsecivæ, 2nd ser. p. 151; Kopp's Beiträge zur Gesch. der Chemie, drittes Stück, 1875, p. 239; information kindly given by Mrs. James Sime.]

P. J. H.