Popular Science Monthly/Volume 10/November 1876/Sketch of Dr. Arnott

PSM V10 D008 Neil Arnott.jpg

Dr. Arnott.


AMONG the agencies for the diffusion of the knowledge of physics and the taste for its study in the past generation, few were more effective and successful than "The Elements of Physics," a treatise for schools, by the author whose portrait will be found in the present number of the Monthly. It was a work in many respects of peculiar and remarkable excellence, from the felicitous treatment of the subject, the fullness and aptness of illustration, the pleasant and attractive style, and what may be called the practicalness of the book, or the prominence it gave to the exposition of familiar phenomena. Many students of both sexes in our higher schools received a bent in the direction of scientific study from the use of this text-book, which lasted through life; and, as a new edition of the volume is about to appear, brought up to the time by judicious and able editors, there are many who would like to know something about the personal character and life of the author.

Neil Arnott was born on the 10th of May, 1788, at Arbroath, in Scotland. On his father's side he was descended from a Lowland family, and his mother was the daughter of a Highland clan. His youth was passed at Dysart, near Montrose. At the age of ten he became a pupil in the Aberdeen Grammar-School, where he remained the next three years.

In consequence of having been successful at the Bursary competition at Marischal College, in 1801, he became a student there, and completed the regular course, obtaining the degree of M. A. in his seventeenth year. It was during his third year in college, under the admirable instruction of Prof. Copland, that his mind was directed to natural philosophy, which henceforth became his favorite study. He chose medicine as his profession, and went through the medical course at Aberdeen. For the purpose of completing his studies, he went to London in 1806, and became a pupil in St. George's Hospital, under Sir Everard Home. Through the influence of the latter, he was appointed surgeon in the East India Company, where he gained valuable experience for his after-work. Having settled in London in 1811, he not only obtained large success as a medical practitioner, but at the same time was collecting materials for his future work on "Physics." In 1815 he was appointed physician to the French embassy, and afterward to the Spanish embassy. In 1836 he became a member of the Senate in the newly-founded University of London in 1837, one of the physicians extraordinary to the queen, and in 1838 a member of the Royal Society, and subsequently of the Geological Society.

Dr. Arnott gave two courses of lectures at different times on the relation of natural philosophy to medicine. These were afterward embodied in his "Physics." In 1837 appeared his well-known "Essay on Warming and Ventilation," and, by the practical application of the theories contained in it, there resulted the stoves and ventilators which bear his name. For these and other inventions, including the water-bed, he obtained from the Royal Society the Rumford medal. On account of the assistance which he rendered to the practice of medicine, and to the general public health, he received, at the Paris Exposition in 1855, a gold medal, added to which by the emperor was the cross of the Legion of Honor. During his connection with the General Board of Health, he devoted much of his time to the subjects relating either directly or indirectly to hygiene. Not only here, but during his whole life, he had exercised and used his observing powers, so that each new experience added to his valuable stock of facts, which bore especially upon natural philosophy.

Many traits of his character made him a social favorite, and his interest in society at large has justly caused him to be ranked among the chief promoters of human welfare. All his actions were characterized in a remarkable degree by unselfishness. He used none of his inventions in his own interest, and refused to have them patented, in order that their usefulness might be more wide-spread. As Prof. Bain, one of the editors of his "Elements," remarks: "Throughout his life, and by his various inventions and publications, Dr. Neil Arnott manifested a purely philanthropic desire to extend to others the benefits of that knowledge which, from his boyhood upward, he had acquired by long and patient observation. His earnest wish was to make the path of learning easy to all. We have now before us a copy of 'The Elements of Physics' as it first appeared in 1827. Within five years of its publication, five large editions of the work were called for, and, although not then complete, it was as translated into several foreign languages. It is not too much to say of this and his other works that the learned and the unlearned, the student and the philosopher, have equally benefited by his labors." In addition to his general benevolence referred to above, he strove to promote the advancement of physical science by endowing scholarships in the universities and public schools. In 1869 he gave $10,000 to the University of London, and $5,000 each to the universities of Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and St. Andrews. Not having accomplished a design expressed by him of leaving $5,000 to each of the four Scotch universities, his widow has carried out his plans since his death. He died on the 2d of March, 1874.