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Kirwan, Richard

KIRWAN, RICHARD (1733-1812), Irish scientist, was born at Cloughballymore, Co. Galway, in 1733. 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. In 1766, having conformed to the established religion two years previously, he 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 Cavendish in regard to the latter's experiments on air. In 1787 he removed to Dublin, where four years later 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, philology, etc. 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. He was one of the last supporters in England of the phlogistic hypothesis, for which he contended in his Essay on Phlogiston and the Constitution of Acids (1787), identifying phlogiston with hydrogen. This work, translated by Madame Lavoisier, 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. His other books included Elements of Mineralogy (1784), which was the first systematic work on that subject in the English language, and which long remained standard; An Estimate of the Temperature of Different Latitudes (1787); Essay of the Analysis of Mineral Waters (1799), and Geological Essays (1799). In his later years he turned to philosophical questions, producing a paper on human liberty in 1798, a treatise on logic in 1807, and a volume of metaphysical essays in 1811, none of any worth. Various stories are told of his eccentricities as well as of his conversational powers. He died in Dublin in June 1812.

Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)

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