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Richard Kirwan : biography

1 August 1733 - 22 June 1812

Richard Kirwan FRS MRIA (1 August 1733 – 22 June 1812) was an Irish scientist. He was one of the last supporters of the theory of phlogiston.

Kirwan was active in the fields of chemistry, meteorology, and geology. He was widely known in his day, corresponding and meeting with Lavoisier, Black, Priestley, and Cavendish.

Honors and activities

  • Fellow of the Royal Society (1780)
  • Copley Medal (1782)
  • Royal Irish Academy (1799 – 1812) - President
  • Wernerian Natural History Society of Edinburgh (1808) - honorary founding member

Life and work

A burning glass owned by Richard Kirwan Richard Kirwan was born at Cloughballymore, Co. Galway, the second son of Marty and Martin Kirwan, thus a descendant of William Ó Ciardhubháin and a member of The Tribes of Galway. Part of his early life was spent abroad, and in 1754 he entered the Jesuit novitiate either at St Omer or at Hesdin, but returned to Ireland in the following year, when he succeeded to the family estates through the death of his brother in a duel. Kirwan married in 1757, but his wife only lived eight more years. The couple had two daughters, Maria Theresa and Eliza.

In 1766, having conformed to the established religion two years previously, Kirwan was called to the Irish bar, but in 1768 abandoned practice in favour of scientific pursuits. During the next nineteen years he resided chiefly in London, enjoying the society of the scientific men living there, and corresponding with many savants on the continent of Europe, as his wide knowledge of languages enabled him to do with ease. His experiments on the specific gravities and attractive powers of various saline substances formed a substantial contribution to the methods of analytical chemistry, and in 1782 gained him the Copley medal from the Royal Society, of which he was elected a fellow in 1780; and in 1784 he was engaged in a controversy with Henry Cavendish in regard to the latter's experiments on air. In 1784, he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

In 1787 Kirwan moved to Dublin, where, in 1799, he became president of the Royal Irish Academy. To its proceedings he contributed some thirty-eight memoirs, dealing with meteorology, pure and applied chemistry, geology, magnetism and philology. One of these, on the primitive state of the globe and its subsequent catastrophe, involved him in a lively dispute with the upholders of the Huttonian theory. His geological work was marred by an implicit belief in the universal deluge, and through finding fossils associated with the trap rocks near Portrush he maintained basalt was of aqueous origin.

Kirwan was one of the last supporters in England of the theory of phlogiston, for which he contended in his Essay on Phlogiston and the Constitution of Acids (1787), identifying phlogiston with hydrogen. This work, translated by Marie-Anne Pierette Paulze, was published in French with critical notes by Lavoisier and some of his associates; Kirwan attempted to refute their arguments, but they proved too strong for him, and he acknowledged himself a convert in 1791.

Various stories are told of Kirwan's eccentricities as well as of his conversational powers. It is said that flies "were his especial aversion; he kept a pet eagle, and was attended by six large dogs."

At the time of the Union, Richard Kirwan refused a baronetcy and died in June 1812 aged 79. He was buried in Hill Street, Dublin ("Old St. George's Church") where Mr. Pope, his butler, joined him in the same grave a few years later."Ballyturin House" photo 1898531 "The tower of the former St George's Church, Hill Street". Known in the 1700s as Drumcondra Church, not to be confused with the "New St. George's Church", and not to be confused with the Drumcondra Church of St. John in Church Street.The Irish Times, Nov 26 1894, 3. The tombstones were all moved to the periphery of the park (where they still remain); the church was demolished and the monuments were rehoused in the tower which was left standing.Dublin Corporation Reports 1892 Vol.I, 370.Ordnance Survey of Ireland / Government of Ireland, 25i map of 1906-9 showing location of graves in Hill Street, Drumcondra, Dublin.


Richard Kirwan - Portrait by [[Hugh Douglas Hamilton]]

  • (1784)
  • Essay on Phlogiston and the Constitution of Acids (1787)
  • (1787)
  • Essay of the Analysis of Mineral Waters (1799)
  • Geological Essays (1799)
  • (1796; sixth edition in 1806)
  • (1807)
  • (1809)
  • (1810)
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