From rags to Royal Society

Edward Frankland
July 3, 1998

Edward Frankland's achievements are clearly exceptional. Born the illegitimate son of a maid "below stairs" and of a middle-class lawyer's son in a small Lancashire town in 1825, and apprenticed to a pharmacist in Lancaster until he was 20, he died in 1899 a KCB, a fellow of the Royal Society and, of course, an outstanding contributor to 19th-century chemical theory.

Frankland's biographer, Colin Russell, is best known for his 1971 History of Valency and his 1993 Templeton lectures, "The Earth, Humanity and God". His first book on Frankland, covering his subject's early life, Lancastrian Chemist: The Early Years of Sir Edward Frankland (1987), was prompted by his discovery, while teaching organic chemistry at the Polytechnic in Preston (now the University of Central Lancashire) that he lived near Frankland's birthplace. Since then several thousand documents on Frankland, mostly in private hands, have come to light. Microfilms of them are available, and Russell has now made full use of them.

It is not entirely clear how Frankland got his grounding in chemistry, other than by private reading and through a class at the local Mechanics' Institute. At any rate, he was recommended by a friendly doctor to work at the laboratory in Westminster of the great Lyon Playfair. Academically, Frankland prospered. He was first able to journey to Germany to work at the University of Marburg, and after a period teaching chemistry in Hampshire he went back to Marburg and took his PhD under Bunsen. There were no PhD's awarded by British universities at that time, and it was common for ambitious British chemists to take PhD's in Germany. Frankland also met and got engaged to Sophie Fick, the daughter of a prominent legal family in Cassel, though he could not afford to marry until nearly two years later, in 1851.

At this time there were two rival theories of the composition of organic molecules, the radical theory and the type theory. Eventually these turned out merely to be forerunners of a more modern theory of organic structure, and Frankland made an essential contribution to that development. His first important discovery was that of organometallic com£. That led him to the theory of valency; that each element or radical can combine, or form bonds (Frankland's term) with a fixed number of other elements or radicals. Unfortunately, as often happened to him, Frankland did not get the full credit, especially on the Continent. He went on to develop his theory of structures and his own notation. His theoretical work in chemistry is described by Russell in loving detail.

Frankland held various teaching jobs, including the chair of chemistry at Owens College in Manchester, and eventually that at the Royal College of Chemistry. He became, in fact, "an accomplished chemical pluralist", who held several jobs at the same time, in addition to a number of industrial consultancies. After all, he had no private means. His chair at the Royal College of Chemistry included not only the post of examiner in chemistry for the department of science and art but also that of official analyst for the London water supply, which involved him not only in controversy over his methods of analysis but also in the heated contemporary public controversy over water pollution.

We hear in detail about Frankland's family life, including that of his children and the deaths of his first and later his second wife. We hear about his membership of the X-Club, and associated professional conspiracies, his presidency of the Chemical Society and his founding presidency of the Institute of Chemistry, and his failure (because of his industrial consultancy) to be elected president of the Royal Society. His KCB was evidently given because he had twice declined the presidency of the British Association rather than for any other service.

This is a very long and thorough book. It covers not only Frankland's research in chemistry but also the teaching of chemistry, the examining of chemistry, the development of the chemical profession and of professions generally, Frankland's hobby of mountaineering and scientific theories stemming from it, and Victorian family life in general. Though it will interest many, some may wish to skip parts.

Alistair Duncan was formerly reader in history and philosophy of science and technology, Loughborough University.

Edward Frankland: Chemistry, Controversy and Conspiracy in Victorian England

Author - Colin A. Russell
ISBN - 0 521 49636 5
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £65.00
Pages - 535

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