Popular Science Monthly/Volume 28/January 1886/Science in its Useful Applications

950760Popular Science Monthly Volume 28 January 1886 — Science in its Useful Applications1886William Odling




BY the attainment of our incorporation by royal charter, in lieu of the articles of association by which we have, until now, been banded together, we become for the first time an officially recognized professional body, known officially to Government, and both to municipal and to other professional bodies. Further than this, we have had formal acknowledgment made of our fitness to be charged with certain public duties and responsibilities, and have established our claim to be intrusted with correlative rights and privileges. Our profession, the public utility and importance of which have, in this way, received at length so formal a recognition, is one that we may all of us feel a just pride in belonging to. It is not, indeed, with bated breath that we need speak of ourselves as professional chemists. Chemistry, indeed, as a branch of knowledge, pertains not alone to the student, but exists also for the practitioner, and still more for the public. Of exceptional interest as a subject of study, it is of scarcely less interest from its manifold practical applications, and as a contributor to the daily wants and enjoyments of the community, a community in which all are bound up with another, and are under obligation to render services to one another. Nowadays, the ever-extending and increasingly complex wants of the community create a greater and greater demand for what are known as professional services, and for professional services of a kind and extent that can not be rendered by the parson, or the doctor, or the lawyer; or yet by the amateur engineer, or the amateur electrician, or the amateur chemist. It is the competent services of professional men, specially trained in their several departments, that are alone adequate, and are alone accordingly in request. To the trained professional chemist, as to other professional men, interests of occasionally enormous value are committed; and some notion of the consideration in which his work is held may be gathered from the extensive resort had everywhere to his services, even by the great departments of state and by the most renowned and important of municipal and other corporations.

Among Government Departments, the War Office, the Home Office, the Board of Trade, the Local Government Board, and the Board of Inland Revenue, have each their respective permanently attached staffs of professional chemists, with whom from time to time, in relation to special subjects of inquiry, other chemists of distinction are associated. Among corporations and public institutions of all sorts, the City of London, the Metropolitan Board of Works, most of the great provincial Corporations and Local Boards, the Royal Mint, the Houses of Parliament, the Elder Brethren of the Trinity House, the Thames Conservancy, the Royal Agricultural Society, the great Gas and Water Companies, the different Metropolitan Vestries and Local Boards, and many more such bodies, have recourse alike to the regular services of their permanently attached professional chemists, and to the supplementary services of various others among us whom they find it necessary to call into consultation from time to time. And of yet greater extent as a whole is the habitual resort that is had to the services of the professional chemists by mercantile and manufacturing firms and associations, engaged in almost every variety of commerce, manufacture, and industrial enterprise. Alike, then, by the great departments of state, and by commercial firms of worldwide renown, and by traders and producers occupying a less distinguished position, the multifarious services of the chemist are ever in request. And in respect to ourselves, by whom those services are rendered, from those of us occupying the leading positions in the profession, to the most humble individuals practicing in our ranks, we are all associated in a common work, and have all a common credit to maintain, and are all under mutual obligation to co-operate with and advance the interests of one another.

It would seem, however, from observations not unfrequently hazarded by some very superior persons, whose happy mission it is to put the rest of the world to rights, that there is something derogatory to the man of science in making his science subservient in any way to the requirements of his fellows, and thereby contributory to his own means for the support of himself and of those depending upon him. Now, on this not uncommon cant of the day, a little plain speaking would seem to be very much wanted. While the investigation of nature and the interpretation of natural law arc admittedly among the highest, as they are among the most delightful of human occupations, the right application of natural law to effect desirable objects is in itself a scarcely less worthy occupation; many of these objects being of paramount importance, and attainable only by the exercise of high scientific sagacity and skill, aided by a fertility of resource and a persistent elasticity of spirit, ready ever to cope with the successive novel difficulties found to be continually opposing themselves.

In this matter, as in so many others, the sense of proportion is but too often lost sight of. Because the investigations of a Newton, a Darwin, a Dalton, a Joule, and a Faraday have an importance of which few among us can adequately conceive even the measurement; because among the scientific men now or but lately living in our midst are to be found those whose investigations in pure science have not only won for them a high renown, but have earned for them the gratitude, and should have obtained for them the substantial acknowledgments of their country and the world; and because even the minor investigations and discoveries that arc ever being made in pure science have all of them their merit and their value, it does not follow that the mere accomplishment, it may be in an abundant leisure, of two or three minor investigations, however creditably conducted, are to lift their authors into a scientific position, altogether above that of men whose laborious lives have been spent in rendering their great scientific attainments directly serviceable to the needs of the state and of the community. The accomplishment of such like investigations does not entitle their authors to claim exemption from the duty of earning their own livelihoods, or give them a claim to be endowed by the contributions of others with the means to jog leisurely along, without responsibilities and without anxieties, the far from thorny paths of their own predilection. However heterodox it may be thought by some, the best of all endowments for research is unquestionably that with which the searcher, relying on his own energies, succeeds in endowing himself. The work to which our natures are repugnant, not less than the work which entrances us and hardly makes itself felt as a work at all, has to be done. In some degree or other, we have most of us to obtain our own livelihood; and harsh as may seem the requirement, it will, I suppose, be conceded that the necessity put upon the mass of mankind, of having to earn their daily bread, is an arrangement of Providence which has, on the whole, worked fairly well; and further, that the various arrangements hitherto tried for exempting certain classes of men from the necessity of having to earn their daily bread, in order that they might give themselves up to the higher spiritual or intellectual life, have scarcely, to say the least of them, worked quite so satisfactorily as they were intended to. All of us are, without doubt, qualified for higher things than the mere earning of our daily broad; but the discipline of having to earn our daily bread is, in more ways than one, a very wholesome discipline for the mass of us, and even for the best of us. It may here and there press hardly on particular natures, but it is rarely an impediment to the achievement of the highest things by those having the moral qualities, the judgment, the determination, and the self-denial necessary above everything else for their achievement. Not a few of us may consider ourselves fitted for higher work than the gods provide for us, and fondly imagine what great things we should effect if we could only have our daily bread supplied to us by the exertions and endowments of other less gifted mortals. But experience is not on the whole favorable to the view that, the conditions being provided, the expectation would be realized. Experience, indeed, rather favors the notion that it is primarily the necessity for work, and association with those under a necessity to work—those in whom a professional spirit has been aroused, and by whom work is held in honor—that creates and keeps up the taste and the habit of work, whereby the vague ambition to achieve is turned to some productive account. Take, say, a thousand of the most eminent men the world has produced, and, making no allowance for the large influence of descent or training, or of association with those to whom work is a necessity, or, having been a necessity, has become a habit, consider what proportion of these men have, by their means and position in early life, been free from any stimulus or obligation to exert and cultivate their powers; and consider, on the other hand, what proportion of them have been stimulated to exertion and success by the stern necessity of having either to achieve their own careers, or to drop into insignificance, if not indeed into actual or comparative degradation and poverty. We ought, indeed, all of us to be students, and to be above all things students; but the most of us can not be, nor is it desirable, save in the case of a special few, that we should be only students. We have all our duties to fulfill in this world, and it is not the least of these duties to render ourselves independent of support from others, and able ourselves to afford support to those depending upon us. Fortunate are we in being able to find our means of support in the demand that exists for the applications of a science which has for its cultivators so great a charm. To judge, however, not indeed by their coyness when exposed to the occasional temptation of professional work, but rather by their observations on the career of others, the most sought after and highest in professional repute, the pursuit of professional chemistry is, in the opinion of some among us, a vocation open to the gravest of censure. It is praiseworthy, indeed, for the man of science to contribute to his means of livelihood by the dreary work of conducting examinations in elementary science for all sorts of examining-boards, and by teaching elementary science at schools and colleges, and by giving popular expositions of science at public institutions, and by exchanging a minor professorial appointment, affording abundant opportunities for original work, in favor of a more lucrative and exacting appointment involving duties which, if rightly fulfilled, must seriously curtail these same opportunities. It is praiseworthy of him to add to his means by compiling manuals of elementary science, and by writing attractive works on science for the delectation of general readers; but it is forsooth derogatory to him, if not indeed a downright prostitution of his science, that he should contribute to his means of livelihood by making his knowledge subservient to the wants of departments, corporations, and individuals, alike of great and small distinction, standing seriously in need of the special scientific services that he is able to render them.

A glance back suffices to show how foreign to the ideas of the great men who preceded us is this modern notion of any reprehensibility attaching to applied or professional science. In his earlier days. Professor Faraday was largely employed in connection with all sorts of practical questions, and until almost the close of his life continued to act as scientific adviser to the Trinity House. No man was more constantly occupied in advising with regard to manufacturing and metallurgic and fiscal questions than Professor Graham, who ended his days holding the official position of Master of the Mint; a position in which he succeeded another eminent man of science, less known, however, as a chemist than as an astronomer, Sir John Herschel. As in these typical instances, so also in very many others; and, if I may be allowed to draw at all on my own personal experiences, I would say that some of the most pleasant remembrances of my past life relate to the occasions on which I had the good fortune, early in my career, to be brought into association, as a junior professional colleague, with some among the then most eminent of scientific men. It did not indeed happen to me to be associated in this particular manner with Faraday, or Graham, or Daniel, or yet with their frequent colleague, Richard Phillips, one of the early Presidents of the Chemical Society, for many years the able and omniscient editor of the "Philosophical Magazine," and the leading professional chemist of his day. But among those who have passed away from us altogether, or have for some cause or another quitted our ranks, my recollection goes back to professional association with a host of distinguished men of science, whose membership would, of itself, suffice to insure an honorable estimation for any profession to which they belonged. On different occasions it has been my lot to be engaged in advising on various questions in conjunction with Arthur Aikin, a personal friend of Priestley, writer of a still valuable dictionary of chemistry, the first Treasurer of the Chemical Society, and for many years the leading authority in regard to chemical metallurgy; with Dr. Thomas Anderson, of Glasgow, an assiduous and successful worker in the then unfamiliar field of organic chemistry, and for many years consulting chemist to the Highland Society; with Professor Brande, the pupil and successor of Davy, at the Royal Institution, long time one of the Secretaries of the Royal Society, an early President of the Chemical Society, and, in his professional capacity, Director of the Die Department at the Royal Mint; with Sir Robert Christison, of Edinburgh, one of the most scientific of British toxicologists and pharmacologists, an original worker in many fields of inquiry, President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and a selected, though not an actual. President of the British Association; with Dr. Warren de la Rue, the friend of us all, more than once President of the Chemical Society, and a Vice-President, Medalist, and Bakerian Lecturer of the Royal Society; with Dr. Hoffmann, the first Professor at the College of Chemistry, and Assayer for many years to the Mint, one who can claim so many of us as his pupils, and who, as a professional chemist, no less than as an investigator and teacher, ever set an example of energy and vivacity to all his associates, working on one occasion the long night through in order to extract from paraffine-oil a specimen of benzene, ready for exhibition in court on the following morning, an instance of professional devotion which, as the presence of my immediate predecessor, Sir Frederick Abel, reminds me, is not wholly without a parallel. Proceeding in my enumeration, I may mention Sir Robert Kane, then of Cork, a teacher and worker of originality and wide erudition, to whom chemists are indebted for their now familiar conception of amidogen; also Dr. Allen Miller, Professor at King's College, London, and Assayer to the Mint, a President of the Chemical Society, and for many years Treasurer of the Royal Society; also Sir Lyon Playfair, then Professor of Chemistry at the University of Edinburgh, now a member of her Majesty's Privy Council and President of the British Association, one to whom we are indebted for his hearty sympathy with the objects of the Institute, and for the unsparing exercise of his efforts and influence on our behalf; also my relative by marriage, Alfred Smee, a pioneer in electro-metallurgy, and inventor of the galvanic battery by which for the third of a century the greater part of the galvano-plastic work of this country has been effected; and lastly, Robert Warington, chemist for many years to the Society of Apothecaries, the founder and first Secretary of the Chemical Society, and a frequent contributor thereto of his characteristically ingenious observations. And not only with the above-named eminent men of science, but with many others also, has it been my fortune to be professionally associated, including, I regretfully have to add among those who have passed away from us, some of the most distinguished original members and warmest friends of the Institute, as Dr. Stenhouse, Sir William Siemens, Professor Way, Dr. Angus Smith, Dr. Voelcker, and Mr. Walter Weldon. Moreover, among the leading men of science of the present day. Sir Frederick Abel, Mr. Crookes, Professor Dewar, Professor Frankland, Mr. Vernon Harcourt, Dr. Tyndall, and Dr. Williamson, are either the holders of definite professional appointments or are otherwise more or less actively engaged in the work of the professional chemist. A profession surely stands in need of no apology which includes and has included in its ranks, within such a limited period, such a host of distinguished members.

So far, moreover, from his professional eminence and usefulness being made a matter of reproach to the scientific man, it should constitute rightly a claim to his higher consideration; and, far from being accounted a disparagement, should be held as an addition to his scientific standing. In the professions most allied to our own on the one side and on the other, this is well recognized. The physician and the engineer are not merely students of pathology and of mechanics, however important may have been their contributions to pathology and mechanics respectively, but they are the distinguished craftsmen in their respective arts. And, whether or not they may have made important contributions to pure science, their rank as eminent scientific men is everywhere and rightly conceded to them. A lucky chance happening to any professional man may indeed bring him to the front, but no succession of lucky chances can ever happen that will of themselves prove adequate to keeping him there. Great qualities are ever necessary to sustain great professional positions; and to be for years one of the foremost in a scientific profession is of itself at least as substantial an evidence of scientific attainment as is the publication of a memoir on some minute point, say of anatomy, or chemistry, or hydrodynamics, for example. And it is so recognized, and very properly recognized, even in quarters where pure science admittedly reigns supreme. Leading engineers and leading physicians and surgeons are every year admitted into the Royal Society, not on account of the importance attaching to any special contributions they may have made to mechanical or pathological science, but mainly because of their eminence in their several professions, in which to be eminent is of itself an evidence of scientific character and of extensive scientific knowledge. It may indeed be taken as beyond question that, to obtain and retain a leading position in a scientific profession needs, among other things, the possession of high scientific attainments. I say among other things, for without moral qualities in a notable degree, sympathy, endurance, courage, judgment, and good faith, no such professional success is conceivable. Professional eminence is the expression necessarily of scientific ability, but not of scientific ability alone. The self-engrossing science of the student has to be humanized by its association with the cares and wants, and the disappointments and successes, of an outside world.—Chemical News.

  1. The original Institute of Chemistry was organized in England in 1877, under the presidency of Dr. Frankland, its second president being Sir Frederick Abel. It was reorganized in 1885, and incorporated under the title of the "Institute of Chemistry of Great Britain and Ireland." The present president is Dr. Odling, who gave his inaugural address before the new organization November 6th, and which is here given, with omission of the preliminary part, which is chiefly of local English interest.