Dr. Thomas Beddoes (1760–1808): Chemistry, Medicine, and Books in the French and Chemical Revolutions

  • Trevor H. Levere
Part of the Archimedes New Studies In The History And Philosophy Of Science and Technology book series (ARIM, volume 18)

Dr. Thomas Beddoes was a mere bit-player in Britain’s cultural history, as Roy Porter has told us; but his career, seen through correspondence, notes, publications, and instruments, invites us to reassess several key aspects of the history of late eighteenth-century chemistry. He was not highly skilled in the chemical laboratory. His main medical research project, based on the hope that different gases would have therapeutic effects on a variety of disease, was a failure. Nonetheless he continues to tantalize historians of chemistry and medicine. There are already three biographies of him, and a further study is in preparation. Here, I wish to examine his medical chemistry or chemical medicine, his role as a truly European chemist and physician, his engagement with industrial chemists and engineers in the Lunar Society of Birmingham, and the chemical, medical, and political networks to which he belonged or contributed. Iatrochemistry has been little considered in the late eighteenth century, but it was important, in ways that Beddoes helps us to understand. Nationalism is often identified with the different parties engaged in the Chemical Revolution, but the case of Thomas Beddoes makes it clear that internationalism is also important. The debates between the new and the old chemistry are often made to revolve around two issues, phlogiston and quantification; Beddoes helps us to understand that the chemical debates sometimes had a much broader and more complex underpinning.


Nitrous Oxide Late Eighteenth Century American Philosophical Society Oxford Dictionary Phlogiston Theory 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.



  1. 1.
    Roy Porter, Flesh in the Age of Reason (London: Penguin, 2003), 413; Porter nevertheless wrote a medical biography of Beddoes (note 2).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    J. E. Stock, Memoirs of the Life of Thomas Beddoes M.D. (London, 1811); Dorothy Stansfield, Thomas Beddoes M.D. 1760–1808 (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1984); Roy Porter, Doctor of Society: Thomas Beddoes and the sick-trade in late-Enlightenment England (London: Routledge, 1992). Larry Stewart and I, with the guidance of Hugh Torrens, are collaborating on a new biography in multiple contexts.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Lazzaro Spallanzani, Dissertations Relative to the Natural History of Animals and Vegetables, trans. Thomas Beddoes, 2 vols. (London, 1784), translated from Opuscoli di fisica animale e vegetabile, aggiuntevi alcune lettere relative ad essi opuscoli dal Signor Bonnet e da altri scritte all’autore, 3 vols. (Venice, 1782).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Torbern Bergmann, A Dissertation on Elective Attractions, translated from the Latin by the translator of Spallanzani’s dissertations (London, Murray, and Edinburgh, Elliot, 1785), translated from “Disquisitio de attractionibus electivis” in vol. 2 of Nova acta Regiæ societatis scientiarum upsaliensis (1775). The chemical essays of Charles-William Scheele. Translated from the Transactions of the Academy of Science at Stockholm, with additions by T. Beddoes (London, 1786).Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Birmingham Record Office, James Watt Papers 4/44/55; Joseph Black to James Watt, 15 March 1780.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    See R. M. G. Anderson’s entry on Joseph Black in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Gloucestershire Record Office D303 C1/61; Beddoes to Trye, n.d. [winter 1784–85]. This letter is published in T. H. Levere and P. B. Wood, “Thomas Beddoes and the Edinburgh Medical School: A Letter to Charles Brandon Trye, c.1785,” University of Edinburgh Journal 32, 1986, 36–39. For information about Trye, see the entry Charles Brandon Trye by D’A. Power, revised by Michael Bevan, in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Stansfield, Thomas Beddoes, 33–34.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Edinburgh University Library MS Gen 875/III/52, 53; Beddoes to Black, 6 November 1787.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Birmingham Record Office, Boulton and Watt papers; Beddoes to Matthew Robinson Boulton, 15 July 1800.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    British Library, Sotheby 60 (2). This document is now missing; I have a microfilm made some years ago.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Neil Vickers, Coleridge and the Doctors 1795–1806 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004), 37–78 is devoted to Beddoes’s connection to Coleridge, and gives a good account of the former’s medical theories and practice.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    Thomas Beddoes, Über die Schwindsucht, trans. Kuhn (Leipzig, 1803).Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    Essai sur le phlogistique, et sur la constitution des acides, traduit de l’anglois de M. Kirwan [by Mme. Lavoisier]; avec des notes de MM. de Morveau, Lavoisier, de la Place, Monge, Berthollet, & de Fourcroy (Paris, 1788). This edition is discussed in Seymour Mauskopf, “Richard Kirwan’s Phlogiston Theory: Its Success and Fate,” Ambix 49, 2002, 185–205.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    Joseph Priestley, Disquisitions Relating to Matter and Spirit. To which is added, the history of the philosophical doctrine concerning the origin of the soul, and the nature of matter; with its influence on Christianity, etc. (London, 1777).Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Gavin de Beer, The Sciences Were Never at War (New York: Thomas Nelson, 1960); H. B. Carter, Sir Joseph Banks 1743–1820 (London: British Museum, 1988).Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    T. H. Levere, “Spreading the Chemical Revolution: The Dutch Connection,” Bulletin of the Scientific Instrument Society 49, June 1996, 14–16.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    See W. A. Smeaton, “Louis Bernard Guyton de Morveau, F.R.S. (1737–1813) and his Relations with British Scientists,” Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 22, 1967, 113–30; Kirwan, Essai sur le Phlogistique.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    William A. Smeaton, Fourcroy, Chemist and Revolutionary, 1755–1809 (Cambridge: W. Heffer, [1962]); also “French Scientists in the Shadow of the Guillotine: The Death Roll of 1792–1794,” Endeavour NS 17, 1993, 60–63.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    Birmingham Record Office, Boulton and Watt papers; Thomas Beddoes to Matthew Robinson Boulton, 13 August 1793.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    Joseph DeBoffe, French bookseller (trading as J. C. DeBoffe) was at 7 Gerrard Street, Soho, London, from 1792–1807.Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    Stansfield, Thomas Beddoes, 101.Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    The list of Beddoes’s Bristol borrowings has not been published. See G. Whalley, “The Bristol Library borrowings of Southey and Coleridge, 1793–98,” Library 4 1949, 114–31.Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    For a list of books and their reviewers, see Benjamin Christie Nangle, The Monthly review, second series, 1790–1815; indexes of contributions and articles (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1955).Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    Beddoes’s reviews included one of Fourcroy, La medicine éclairée par les sciences physiqus, in Monthly Review, ser. 2, 12, 1793, 509; and Fourcroy, Philosophie chimique 18, 1795, 16.Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    Smeaton, “Shadow of the Guillotine.”Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    Beddoes, Memorial, 15.Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    Ibid., 19.Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    Cornwall Record Office, MS DD DG 41/5; Beddoes to Giddy, 8 November 1792; Beddoes, Hygëia, or Essays Moral and Medical on the Causes Affecting the Personal State of Our Middling and Affluent Classes, 3 vols. (Bristol and London, 1802–03), 1:77, “As to the sort of reading, most injurious to young females, I cordially assent to the opinion of almost all men of reflection. NOVELS, undoubtedly, are the sort most injurious. Novels render the sensibility more diseased. And they increase indolence, the imaginary world indisposing those, who inhabit it in thought, to go abroad into the real.”Google Scholar
  30. 30.
    Beddoes to Trye.Google Scholar
  31. 31.
    Joseph Black, Lectures on the elements of chemistry, delivered in the University of Edinburgh, John Robison, ed., 2 vols. (London and Edinburgh, 1803).Google Scholar
  32. 32.
    See, e.g., William Cole, Chemical literature, 1700–1860: A Bibliography with Annotations, Detailed Descriptions, Comparisons, and Locations (New York: Mansell, 1988).Google Scholar
  33. 33.
    See Paul Lawrence’s essay on James Gregory, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.Google Scholar
  34. 34.
    Michael Neve in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography gives the date of Beddoes’s appointment as Reader as Spring 1788; but Beddoes styled himself Reader in his memorial on the state of the Bodleain Library, printed and issued in 1787. His lectures were not only on chemistry, but also on the closely related discipline of mineralogy, and on the theory of the earth, which in the late eighteenth century was enlivened by the conflict between the theories of Werner and Hutton.Google Scholar
  35. 35.
    Edinburgh University Library MS Gen 875/III/52, 53; Beddoes to Black, 6 November 1787.Google Scholar
  36. 36.
    Joseph Black, lecture notes taken by a student, Royal College of Physicians, Edinburgh, MSS M9. 42 p. 11.Google Scholar
  37. 37.
    American Philosophical Society, MS BD315.1/1969.1821; Davy to Henry Penneck, 26 January 1798.Google Scholar
  38. 38.
    Thomas Beddoes, ed., Contributions to Physical and Medical Knowledge, principally from the West of England (Bristol and London, 1799).Google Scholar
  39. 39.
    Humphry Davy, “An Essay on Heat, Light and the combinations of Light,” in ibid., 4–147.Google Scholar
  40. 40.
    Alessandro Volta, “On the Electricity Excited by the mere Contact of Conducting Substances of Different Kinds,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 90, 1800, 403–31.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. 41.
    Beddoes in Contributions, 213.Google Scholar
  42. 42.
    Black, Lectures, 1:193.Google Scholar
  43. 43.
    For Davy’s experiments and speculations, see David M. Knight, Atoms and Elements: A Study of Theories of Matter in England in the Nineteenth Century (London: Hutchinson, 1967).Google Scholar
  44. 44.
    Edinburgh University Library, Gen 873/III/71, 72; Beddoes to Black, 23 February 1788.Google Scholar
  45. 45.
  46. 46.
    Edinburgh University Library, Gen 873/III/129, 130; Beddoes to Black, 21 April 1789.Google Scholar
  47. 47.
    Ibid. Beddoes to Black, 23 February 1788.Google Scholar
  48. 48.
  49. 49.
    Keele University, Wedgwood archives, W/M 35; Beddoes to Thomas Wedgwood, 3 August 1793.Google Scholar
  50. 50.
    Henry Richard Fox, afterwards Vassall, Baron Holland, Further Memoirs of the Whig Party, 1807–1821, with some Miscellaneous Reminiscences, Lord Stavordale, ed. (London: John Murray, 1905), 324.Google Scholar
  51. 51.
    Lavoisier, Traité élémentaire de chimie, 2 vols. (Paris, 1789), 1:xxix–xxx.Google Scholar
  52. 52.
    Beddoes to Black, 21 April 1789. This burning glass is the only piece of Beddoes’s laboratory apparatus that has been unequivocally identified as his in the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford University, which once housed the university’s chemical laboratory. The Museum also houses ceramic retorts made by Wedgwood, and these may have been acquired and used by Beddoes, who ordered apparatus from Wedgwood. See note 53 below.Google Scholar
  53. 53.
    Beddoes to Josiah Wedgwood, quoted in R. E. Schofield, The Lunar Society of Birmingham (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963), 373.Google Scholar
  54. 54.
    T. H. Levere, “Lavoisier’s Gasometer and Others: Research, Control, and Dissemination,” in Lavoisier in Perspective, ed. Marco Beretta (Munich: Deutsches Museum, 2005), 53–67.Google Scholar
  55. 55.
    Edinburgh University Library, Gen 873/III/200, 201; Beddoes to Black, 15 April 1791.Google Scholar
  56. 56.
    See Hugh Torrens’s article on James Sadler, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. See also Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS Dep. c.134/2; James Sadler to Thomas Beddoes, 14 January 1791, for Sadler’s own statement of the case.Google Scholar
  57. 57.
    John T. Stock, Development of the Chemical Balance (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1969); T. H. Levere, “Balance and Gasometer in Lavoisier’s Chemical Revolution,” in Lavoisier et la Révolution Chimique: Actes du Colloque tenu à l’occasion du bicentenaire de la publication du ‘Traité élémentaire de chimie’ 1789, ed. by M. Goupil with the collaboration of P. Bret and F. Masson (Palaiseau: ABIX-Ecole Polytechnique, 1992), 313–32.Google Scholar
  58. 58.
    Birmingham Central Library, Watt papers MS 3219/4/27:9; Beddoes to James Watt, letter 1795 undated; Thomas Beddoes and James Watt, Considerations on the Medicinal Use and Production of Factitious Airs, part III (London and Bristol, 1795).Google Scholar
  59. 59.
    Levere, “Lavoisier’s Gasometer,” 65.Google Scholar
  60. 60.
    See Barrie Trinder’s entry on William Reynolds in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.Google Scholar
  61. 61.
    Cornwall Record Office, DD/DG 41.30; Joseph Reynolds, letter to Thomas Beddoes via Davies Giddy, 26 August 1791.Google Scholar
  62. 62.
    John Mayow and Thomas Beddoes, Extracts fromTractatus quinque medico-physici … Studio Johannis Mayow’ Oxford, 1674, trans. and ed. by Thomas Beddoes (Oxford and London, 1790); The Chemical Essays of Charles-William Scheele. Translated from the Transactions of the Academy of Science at Stockholm, with additions by T. Beddoes (London, 1786).Google Scholar
  63. 63.
    Desmond King-Hele, Doctor of Revolution: The Life and Genius of Erasmus Darwin (London: Faber, 1977); see also The Letters of Erasmus Darwin, ed. Desmond King-Hele (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981); a new edition is currently in preparation.Google Scholar
  64. 64.
    Pierre Joseph Macquer, A Dictionary of Chemistry… Translated from the French by James Keir… The second edition. To which is added, as an appendix, A treatise [by James Keir] on the various kinds of permanently elastic fluids, or gases (London, 1777–79).Google Scholar
  65. 65.
    Jenny Uglow, The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2002); Schofield, Lunar Society.Google Scholar
  66. 66.
    James Keir, An Account of the Life and Writings of T. Day (London, 1791).Google Scholar
  67. 67.
    James Keir, The First Part of A Dictionary of Chemistry (Birmingham, 1789).Google Scholar
  68. 68.
    Keir’s working copy is in the possession of the author.Google Scholar
  69. 69.
    Beddoes’s account of the visit to Keir is in a letter to Davies Giddy, 21 November 1791; Cornwall Record Office, MS DD/DG 41/48.Google Scholar
  70. 70.
    Birmingham Record Office, MS 3219/4/43:5; Beddoes to James Watt, 8 January 1791.Google Scholar
  71. 71.
    The Museum of the History of Science, Oxford University, has some ceramic retorts (inventory nos. 37798, 42340, 49504) and combustion tubes (47565, 44886, 52033) made by Wedgwood, dated to the early nineteenth century; but dating such pieces is problematic, and it may be that one or more of these pieces was supplied to Beddoes ca. 1790.Google Scholar
  72. 72.
    Darwin lived in Derby, some 35 miles from Birmingham, but although he seldom attended meetings of the Lunar Society, he was regularly consulted by Watt and Wedgwood on medical matters.Google Scholar
  73. 73.
    Schofield, Lunar Society, 377; Schofield, The Enlightened Joseph Priestley: A Study of his Life and Work from 1773 to 1804 (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004), 404.Google Scholar
  74. 74.
    W. A. Smeaton, “Platinum and Ground Glass: Some Innovations in Chemical Apparatus by Guyton de Morveau and Others,” in F. L. Holmes and T. H. Levere, eds., Apparatus and Experimentation in the History of Chemistry (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000), 211–41.Google Scholar
  75. 75.
    Thomas Beddoes, A Letter to Erasmus Darwin, M.D. on a new method of treating pulmonary consumption, and some other diseases hitherto found incurable (Bristol, 1793), 40.Google Scholar
  76. 76.
    Thomas Beddoes, Hygëia, 2:5. Consumption was clearly something of a catch-all in the 1790s, but Beddoes recognized tuberculosis when he encountered it, as did Erasmus Darwin.Google Scholar
  77. 77.
    Birmingham Record Office, James Watt Papers MS 4/12/29; James Watt to Joseph Black, 17 July 1793.Google Scholar
  78. 78.
    Bodleian Library MS Dep. C134/2; Darwin to Beddoes, 6 February 1794, published in Letters of Erasmus Darwin, 94C.Google Scholar
  79. 79.
    Birmingham Record Office, MS 3219/4/28:6; Beddoes to Watt, 25 June 1794; MS 3219/4/28:36, Darwin to Watt, 3 July 1794, published in Letters of Erasmus Darwin 94J; Darwin to Beddoes, July 1794, in ibid. 94K; Darwin to Watt, 17 August 1794, in ibid., 94P.Google Scholar
  80. 80.
    Thomas Beddoes and James Watt, Considerations on the Medicinal Use and on the Production of Factitious Airs, parts I and II (Birmingham, 1794); part II is Watt’s description of his apparatus. Watt and Beddoes, Supplement to the description of a pneumatic apparatus, for preparing factitious air (Birmingham, 1796), amplifies the description Watt gave in the former work.Google Scholar
  81. 81.
    Birmingham Record Office, MS 3219/4/29:13; Beddoes to James Watt, 26 May 1797.Google Scholar
  82. 82.
    Thomas Beddoes, ed. and trans., A new method of operating for the femoral hernia. Translated from the Spanish of Don Antonio de Gimbernat,… To which are added, with plates by the translator, queries respecting a safer method of performing inoculation; and the treatment of certain fevers (London: J. Johnson, 1795). See Acadèmia i Laboratori de Ciències Mèdiques de Catalunya, Homenatge fet a Gimbernat per l’Universitat de Granada i a la cirurgia catalana pel Dr. Víctor Escribano (Barcelona: Vda. Badia Cantenys, 1918). I am grateful to Professor Antoní Malet for this information, and for introducing me to the work of Núria Pérez Puig, who is carrying out research on Gimbernat.Google Scholar
  83. 83.
    T. H. Levere, “Dr. Thomas Beddoes: The Interaction of Pneumatic and Preventive Medicine with Chemistry,” Interdisciplinary Science Studies 7, 1982, 137–47; “Dr. Thomas Beddoes and the Establishment of his Pneumatic Institution: A Tale of Three Presidents,” Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 32, 1977, 41–49. These and other essays on Beddoes are reprinted in Trevor H. Levere, Chemists and Chemistry in Nature and Society 1770–1878 (Brookfield, VT: Variorum, 1994).Google Scholar
  84. 84.
    See J. R. Partington, A History of Chemistry, 4 vols. (London: Macmillan, 1962), 3:598.Google Scholar
  85. 85.
    Birmingham Record Office, Boulton and Watt papers; Beddoes to James Watt, 12 December 1797; A. N. Scherer, ed., Allgemeines Journal der Chemie, 10 vols. (Leipzig and Berlin, 1798–1803). For Higgins, see Stansfield, Thomas Beddoes, 17.Google Scholar
  86. 86.
    Birmingham Record Office, Boulton and Watt papers; Beddoes to James Watt jr., 2 January 1798.Google Scholar
  87. 87.
    See Birmingham Record Office MS 3219/4/29:32; Beddoes to Davies Giddy, 15 July 1798.Google Scholar
  88. 88.
    American Philosophical Society MS BD315.1/1969.1821; Davy to Henry Penneck, 26 January 1798.Google Scholar
  89. 89.
    Mattrass: A glass vessel with a round or oval body and a long neck, used by chemists for digesting and distilling. OED.Google Scholar
  90. 90.
    Cornwall Record Office MS DD DG 40/2; Davies Giddy to Beddoes, 7 January 1795. Giddy was writing about heavy inflammable air (given its numbing effects, probably carbon monoxide, which needed to be handled with great care – James Watt Jr. became unconscious merely sampling it).Google Scholar
  91. 91.
    Quoted by June Z. Fullmer, Young Humphry Davy: The Making of an Experimental Chemist (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 2000), 222.Google Scholar
  92. 92.
    F. F. Cartwright, The English Pioneers of Anaesthesia (Beddoes, Davy, and Hickman) (Bristol: John Wright and Sons, 1952).Google Scholar
  93. 93.
    Margaret C. Jacob and Michael J. Sauter, Why did Humphry Davy and Associates Not Pursue the Pain-alleviating Effects of Nitrous Oxide?” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 57, 2002, 161–76.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  94. 94.
    Neil Vickers, Coleridge and the Doctors, chs. 1 and 2, passim; Roy Porter, Doctor of Society: Thomas Beddoes and the Sick Trade in Late Enlightenment England (London: Routledge, 1992); Martin Wallen, City of Health, Fields of Disease: Revolutions in the Poetry, Medicine, and Philosophy of Romanticism (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004); Levere, “Dr. Thomas Beddoes.”Google Scholar
  95. 95.
    Thomas Beddoes, Rules of the Institution for the Sick and Drooping Poor (Bristol, 1803).Google Scholar
  96. 96.
    Birmingham Record Office, MS 3219/4/118:538; Watt to Beddoes, 6 May 1803.Google Scholar
  97. 97.
    John Ayrton Paris, The Life of Sir Humphry Davy, Bart. LL.D. Late President of the Royal Society, Foreign Associate of the Royal Institute of France, &c. &c. &c., 2 vols. (London, 1831), 1: 74–75.Google Scholar
  98. 98.
    Bodleian Library Oxford, MS Dep. c135/1; Anna Maria Beddoes to Mrs. Edgeworth, 31 July 1812.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  • Trevor H. Levere

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations