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Thomas Charles Hope, MD, FRSE, FRS (1766-1844)

by W.P.Doyle

Thomas Charles Hope

Thomas Charles Hope was born in Edinburgh on 21 July 1766, the third son in a family of five children. His father, John Hope, was Professor of Botany in the University and his mother Juliana (nee Stevenson) was the daughter of an Edinburgh physician. He received his primary education at the High School of Edinburgh and spent a year at a school in Dumfries before entering the University of Edinburgh at the age of thirteen, which was not uncommon at that time.1 For four years he followed an Arts curriculum but, since graduation in Arts had almost ceased during the eighteenth century,2 he did not graduate. During the third and fourth years of these studies he included some courses from the medical curriculum which he followed for the succeeding four years. The normal length of the medical curriculum was three years, but Hope voluntarily re-attended most of the compulsory courses, and even those such as Natural History and Natural Philosophy which were outwith the standard medical curriculum. His motive in so doing would appear to have been his genuine desire to deepen and broaden his knowledge with a view to equipping himself to succeed his father in the Chair of Botany. Indeed, when his father died in 1786, the twenty-year old Hope had become so proficient in Botany, due to his three attendances on that course and private instruction from his father, that he aspired to the Chair.1 However, despite strong support, he was not appointed; he graduated M.D. in 1787 with a graduation thesis entitled "de Plantarum Motibus et Vita" (On the Movements and Life of Plants).

In October 1787 Hope was appointed Lecturer in Chemistry in the University of Glasgow where he was to spend the next eight years.  In 1789, he was appointed assistant Professor of Medicine and continued to teach both chemistry and medicine before becoming Professor of Medicine in 1791, when he resigned as Lecturer in Chemistry.3 He confided to his biographer Thomas Traill, that "from the shortness of the period for preparation, the scantiness of his apparatus, and the utter want of assistance in his laboratory, he regarded his first course of chemistry [1787-8] as very imperfect".1  However, he rapidly developed into an effective teacher.

Through his lectures he became the first University teacher in Britain to abandon unequivocally the phlogiston theory which had dominated eighteenth-century chemistry and to support fully the quite different theory of the great French chemist Antoine Lavoisier.  Briefly, the phlogiston theory assumed that all inflammable bodies and metals contained a common principle, which was termed phlogiston from the Greek 'phlox' meaning flame. When inflammable bodies are burnt or metals are calcined phlogiston escapes.  Although it was well known that metals increase in weight on calcination while during calcination phlogiston was supposed to be lost, this fact was often ignored as of little importance. One explanation advanced was that phlogiston had negative weight and hence when it escaped from a metal during calcination an increase in weight resulted. Practically every chemist adopted the theory of phlogiston during most of the eighteenth century.

On the basis of work begun in 1772 and substantially completed in 1777 Lavoisier formulated an alternative theory which postulated that combustion is not due to an escape of phlogiston but to chemical combination of the combustible substance with oxygen; after accumulating further experimental evidence Lavoisier felt able to assert in 1783 that the phlogiston theory was not only unnecessary since all the experiments could be explained just as well on the new theory, but was actually incorrect, since some of its consequences conflicted with experiment. From student notebooks of Joseph Black's lectures it is clear that he, like most of his contemporaries, fully accepted the doctrine of phlogiston. Hope had attended Black's course in the 1781-2 session and re-attended in the two succeeding sessions. His notes of Black's lectures, taken during the 1782-3 session survive4 and Hope describes them as "pretty Exact".  They are most interesting because they were written on the right hand side of the page only and in the next session he made additions and corrections on the left hand side of the page. The notes of 1782-3 on the theory of phlogiston are a typical presentation of the theory.  However, the additions of the next session indicate that Black was now incorporating some of Lavoisier's views into his lectures, e.g.,

"Some Chemists in France suppose that no bodies contain the phlogiston, Dr B. supposes that bodies contain the phlogiston".

A friend of Hope's, Sir James Hall, a distinguished geologist with an intense interest in chemistry, met Lavoisier several times in Paris in 1786 and became convinced that Lavoisier's ideas should be substituted for the phlogiston theory. Hall returned to Scotland in the summer of 1786 and he and Hope had long discussions on the work of Lavoisier; with the result that Hope became a convert to the new ideas, which he taught to his first class in the University of Glasgow in 1787-8. He decided to spend the summer vacation of 1788 in Paris; on his way there he stayed briefly in London where he was very kindly received by Sir Joseph Banks and was introduced to Henry Cavendish, Charles Blagden, William Herschel and other English scientists. In Paris he was well received by Lavoisier and Oaude Berthollet. Hope considered these meetings with distinguished chemists, and other scientists, as an important era in his life.1   James Hall records in a letter dated 30 October 1788 - "I saw Tom Hope yesterday - he is much pleased with Paris and was well received by M. Lavoisier and his set". Lavoisier did not forget Hope; in a letter to Black of 14 August 1789 Hope writes - "I have just received from France by the hands of My Lord Daer from Mr. Lavoisier a copy of his traite elementaire, the treatise I spoke to you of when in Edinb."

While at Glasgow Hope made his mark by his research, described later, and by the popularity of his lectures. This promising beginning gave Black, then in declining health, the idea of having him as his assistant and subsequent successor. He accordingly approached him in 1795, obtained the agreement of the Town Council and on 4 November the Council appointed Hope conjoint Professor with Black, though at first he delivered only a few lectures. The session 1796-7 was the last in which Black lectured, and in the University of Edinburgh Library there is a manuscript volume5 of notes from the lectures delivered by Black and Hope in this session. They alternated, each doing six blocks although these were not of uniform length.  It was Black, a convert to Lavoisier's views from the early 1790s, and not Hope, who dealt with combustion and the calcination of metals and who treated them in terms of Lavoisier's views - a section of great interest as the last public exposition by that great Scottish chemist concerning the old and the new chemistry. With hindsight, it is difficult to imagine a more striking juxtaposition - Hope, Black's student for three sessions, the first lecturer in Britain to teach the new chemistry, co-lecturing with Black who spoke on the new chemistry of which his classic research published ten years before Hope was born was a foundation stone. From October 1797 Hope, as the sole teacher of chemistry, began the era which was to last until 1843.

Hope's Chair

Hope was an excellent lecturer and at Edinburgh became the most popular ever teacher of chemistry in Britain. The attendance6 at Hope's lectures increased from 293 in 1799 to a peak of 559 in 1823 and then gradually declined to 118 in 1842. During his tenure of the Chair he taught chemistry to over 15,000 students and thus was uniquely influential in Britain in the dissemination of chemical knowledge during the first forty years of the nineteenth century.  His success as a lecturer was due to his clarity of exposition and the illustration of his material by numerous well-contrived lecture demonstrations. Robert Christison, later Professor of Materia Medica, wrote7

"His manner and his diction were, indeed, somewhat pompous. But pomp.. ...was more than counterbalanced by uncommon clearness of exposition, and unexampled splendour and success in experimental demonstration. To be visible to a class of 500 students.. ..his experiments required to be performed on a very large scale - which everyone conversant with experimental lectures knows must increase greatly the difficulty of exact manipulation. Nevertheless, when I first attended Hope in 1814, there was not a single failure to attain exactly what he announced".

In his autobiography, Charles Darwin, who was a medical student in Edinburgh from 1825-1827, wrote of his first year that the lectures "were intolerably dull, with the exception of those on chemistry by Hope..." . To John Leslie, Professor of Natural Philosophy, Hope was "the showman in the other corner". Despite this comment, perhaps inspired by some envy, Hope was not a flamboyant performer; a truer picture is given elsewhere8 - he gave

"a series of strictly scientific lectures, extending for five days weekly over nearly six months, and each illustrated to the full by experiments. To his honour be it said, he simplified and legitimately popularized chemistry without vulgarizing it. There were no needless blazings of phosphorus, or showy exhibitions of blue lights. A conjuror might have envied his dexterity of hand, but he would have despised the total absence of theatrical display, and have smiled at the serious gravity with which the Professor poured an acid on a lump of chalk, and solemnly expounded why the latter effervesced".

Although most of his audience consisted of students of the very large, cosmopolitan, and prestigious Edinburgh Medical School, a significant number attended to broaden their general education. Conscious of his pedagogic ability, Hope was also ready to instruct other lecturers less experienced than he; as is recounted by Benjamin Silliman, Professor of Chemistry at Yale, who, at the age of 26, was sent to Britain to acquire knowledge of pure chemistry at Edinburgh and to spend $10,000 on laboratory equipment. In 1805, Silliman presented himself to Hope who, after reading the letter of introduction and commenting "I perceive that I am addressing a brother Professor" proceeded - "Now sir, from long experience, I will give you one piece of advice, - that is, never to attempt to give a lecture until you are entirely possessed of your subject, and never to venture on an experiment of whose success you are doubtful" .9 Hope was most helpful to Silliman and walked with him to Leith "to use his personal influence in obtaining some articles of glass apparatus, especially some instruments like those...successfully used in his own experiments".9   Hope was the first in Britain to use lecture demonstrations so extensively and on a large scale; this practice continued for First Year courses in chemistry into the 1950s.

Hope lectured on chemistry at Edinburgh for nearly 50 years; how well did he keep up with the subject? He resigned suddenly in 1843 and, as a stop-gap measure, Thomas Traill lectured in the session 1843-4, Hope gave him the free use of his lecture notes which were clearly and fully written out. Traill comments:

"I found his lectures far more nearly written up to the advanced state of chemistry at that period, than I had been led to expect, and although it was necessary to make various alterations and additions, especially...on organic chemistry, these alterations and additions were less extensive than I had anticipated".1

In the early nineteenth century there was no opportunity for students to learn practical chemistry. In 1815 Christison, Syme (later Professor of Surgery) and ten other students formed a society which met once a week in the evening in a basement room and repeated such of Hope's experiments as their means permitted; as a result they learned manipulative skill, resource in difficulties and attention to safety.7 From 1807, some extra-mural lecturers mounted practical classes which by 1822 were well attended; then, in 1823, practical teaching was begun in the University by Dr John Anderson, assistant to Hope who tolerated but did not encourage the practical course; it was poorly attended because attendance was not compulsory, and because it was in competition with perhaps better-organised extramural courses. In 1828 David Boswell Reid became Hope's assistant and put such effort into running the practical class that in 1828-9 about 120 students attended it.6 A few years later Reid petitioned the Town Council, which controlled the University, for the creation of an independent chair of practical chemistry and thus began a saga which has been fully and excellently described elsewhere.6 In this short biography it suffices to say that, after long and involved disputes, the standing of practical chemistry in the University of Edinburgh remained unaltered, there being little improvement in practical instruction until the appointment of Lyon Playfair to the Chair in 1858.

Hope's reputation as a lecturer resulted in his giving some extra-mural courses. In 1800 the Faculty of Advocates had requested him to give a summer course in chemistry and this was attended by many professional men, as well as advocates.1 In 1826 he gave "a short course of lectures for Ladies and Gentlemen" and his lecture room was packed with a most brilliant audience. Traditionalists disapproved of the presence of ladies in the College precincts, and a few even disapproved of the whole venture. For example, in a letter to T. F. Kennedy, Lord Cockburn wrote -

"The fashionable place here now is the College; where Dr Thomas Charles Hope lectures to ladies on Chemistry. He receives 300 of them by a back window, which he has converted into a door. Each of them brings a beau, and the ladies declare that there was never anything so delightful as these chemical flirtations. The Doctor is in absolute extacy with his audience of veils and feathers, and can't leave the Affinities. The only thing that inwardly corrodes him, is that in an evil moment, when he did not expect to draw £200, he published that he was to give the fees to found a Chemical prize, and that he can't now retract, though the said fees amount to about £700. Horrible -.I wish some of his experiments would blow him up. Each female student would get a bit of him".10

Hope, in fact, presented to the Senatus Academicus the sum of £800, the interest of which should, annually or triennially, be given as a prize of £50 for the best essay on a given chemical subject, illustrated by experiment. This fund has since been augmented and five Hope Prize Scholarships are now awarded annually "to the five most deserving students in the Chemical Laboratory".

Hope's Strontia and Baryta

Hope's first research, carried out while he was in Glasgow was part of the early work which preceded the discovery of the element strontium by Humphry Davy in 1808. The early work on a mineral of strontium and on the preparation of compounds of strontium has been carefully assessed11 and the resulting conclusions are summarized here. All the earliest work was carried out on a mineral (strontium carbonate) from Strontian, a village in Argyllshire. In 1790 Crawford and Cruickshank, in a limited series of experiments, showed that the mineral (named strontianite in 1791) differed from similar minerals of the element barium, which is chemically very similar to strontium, and concluded that it contained a new earth. In September 1793, Martin Klaproth published a paper describing a series of parallel experiments made with strontianite and witherite (barium carbonate).  He prepared the chloride, nitrate, acetate and tartrate of strontium and proved that these differed from the corresponding barium compounds and in 1794 prepared strontium oxide and strontium hydroxide. Hope on 4 November 1793 read to the Royal Society of Edinburgh a paper, summarised in the 'Transactions' in 1794 but not published in full until 1798,12 in which he reported that he began to work on the mineral from Strontian in 1791 and in a series of experiments he showed that it contained a 'hitherto unknown kind of earth' and prepared pure strontium oxide and hydroxide and described the preparation of thirteen other compounds of strontium.  Richard Kirwan in a paper read to the Royal Irish Academy on 9 January 1794 described a number of careful experiments including the preparation of a number of salts of strontium and of the oxide and hydroxide. Thus the original discovery of the individual nature of strontianite must be ascribed to Crawford and Cruickshank; while Klaproth, Hope and Kirwan contributed equally and independently to the examination of the properties of strontianite and to the preparation of several compounds of strontium and their differentiation from those of barium.11 In the Department of Chemistry of the University of Edinburgh there are preserved two large round-bottomed flasks, one labelled 'Strontia' and the other 'Baryta'.

Tradition asserts that these are Hope's original preparation of strontium hydroxide and a sample of barium hydroxide prepared from the residues; and although there is no direct proof of this, the physical appearance of the specimens is not in conflict with their being Hope's preparations. That Hope did have samples for exhibition may be inferred from his letter of 18 October 1793 to Joseph Black, in which he writes:

"Dear Doctor, When I had the pleasure of seeing you in Edinb. I asked permission to put into your hands a dissertation which I proposed to lay before the Royal Society. That paper I have nearly compleated and would make bold to read it to the Society: in case you thought it is worth their attention - Will you be so good as to acquaint me when the first meeting of the Society is to take place as I would wish to transmit the paper to you, at least a week previously" - an annotation reads 'The Royal Society meets on the first Monday of November'..."Pray would it be conformable to custom or agreeable to the Society, were I to exhibit specimens of the Strontian mineral and of its more remarkable combinations -"

Hope's only other significant research, carried out after his return to Edinburgh and published in 1805,13 related to the maximum density of water. The peculiar expansion of water had been noted in the seventeenth century but a number of scientists were sceptical of the reality of the phenomenon. In a series of carefully devised experiments Hope proved that water does have a temperature of maximum density which he determined as being between 39.5° and 40°F (the value accepted today is 39.2°F).

While in Bristol in 1799 Hope visited Thomas Beddoes, who had been a fellow-student at Edinburgh, at his Pneumatic Institution where Humphry Davy, then aged 20, was working.3 Soon afterwards a lecturer in chemistry was required for the Royal Institution then under the management of Count Rumford. The latter consulted Hope, and he strongly recommended Davy who was duly appointed in 1801. In later years Hope looked back with great pleasure on his good judgement; he wrote to Traill -

"It has now for many years been a matter of pleasing recollection, that I had the good fortune to be the individual who first suggested and strongly recommended Davy to Count Rumford - In consequence of my recommendation the Count made enquiries after Davy and his cause was warmly espoused by Davies Gilbert & Underwood - I have said a hundred times or oftener that the greatest service which it has been in my power to render to Chemistry is the re-commendation of Davy to the Royal Institution-".

Memorial to Hope

Hope received many honours; he was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and of the Royal Society of London and an honorary member of the Royal Irish Academy. In 1815 he was elected President of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, an office which he held for four successive years; and he was a Vice-President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh from 1823 until his death. In 1838, in recognition of his having completed his 51st year as a teacher he was honoured by a dinner in the Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh, on 15 May, which was attended by more than two hundred with Lord Meadowbank in the chair; the importance of the occasion is underlined by the 'Scotsman' of 19 May 1838 devoting a column and a half to reporting the proceedings. Three years later, he was elected as one of the 77 founder members of the Chemical Society of London (1841).

Hope, like most of the medical and scientific professors, received no salary; but the class-fee system, whereby each student paid three guineas (four after 1812) directly to the Professor for a course, made him a very wealthy man and this is reflected in his successive Edinburgh residences, 54 Princes Street, 65 Queen Street and 31 Moray Place. His life-style may be judged from an invitation to dinner dated 5 October 1842 -

"My Dear Sir
  I beg you will do me the honor of partaking of a haunch of venison on Saturday the 15th at half past six oclock.
  My carriage with your leave will be at your door at six oclock. It will also carry you home in the evening".

Hope's manner is neatly described by Silliman - "a polished gentleman, but a little stately and formal withal".9 As a result "he was little loved, but greatly respected by the students who complained of his chilling unsympathizing manner, but at the same time acknowledged their obligations to him as a teacher".8 In other  circumstances Hope's formality could be pleasing. When Traill was appointed to an Edinburgh Chair in 1833 Hope wrote to him - "...permit me to assure you in writing what I regret I had not an opportunity of doing personally, that your nomination to the Chair of Med. Jurisprudence afforded me much pleasure and satisfaction and that I shall with sincere good wishes, offer you the right hand of Fellowship the first time we meet in the Senate hall- ".

Hope's tombstone

Hope was a man of robust health and in 1838 could assert that during his fifty-one years as a teacher he had not been absent through illness for more than six days. The session 1842-43 was the last in which Hope taught; "it was observed, that his voice was feeble, and although his experiments were, as usual, neatly performed and successful, that he had lost something of his wonted energy".1   Increasing debility led him to resign his Professorship at short notice before the start of the 1843-4 session. As a stop-gap measure Traill taught the chemistry class in that session, and had free access to Hope's manuscript lectures and the use of his apparatus.1 Hope died quietly on 13 June 1844 aged 77 at his home in Moray Place.


  1. Engraving of Thomas Charles Hope by Hodgetts after Raeburn. (Reproduced by kind permission of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.)
  2. Hope's Chair. (Department of Chemistry, University of Edinburgh).
  3. 'Baryta' and 'Strontia' (Department of Chemistry Museum, University of Edinburgh). Photograph by Andy Alexander.
  4. Fountain in memory of Thomas Charles Hope, gifted by his nephew. (Quadrangle, Old College, University of Edinburgh). Photograph by Gary Jack. 
  5. Hope's tombstone in the family vault in Greyfriars Churchyard, Edinburgh. Photograph by Gary Jack.


  1. Traill, T.S., Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 16 , 419-434 (1849).
  2. Horn, D.B., "A Short History of the University of Edinburgh" (University Press, Edinburgh, 1967).
  3. Kent, A. (ed.), "An Eighteenth Century Lectureship in Chemistry" (Jackson, Glasgow, 1950), pp.157-63.
  4. Notes of Lectures by Professor Black taken down by T .C. Hope at Edinburgh University (Edinburgh University Library Mss Dc.10.9-15).
  5. Notes of lectures on chemistry delivered by J. Black and T .C. Hope at Edinburgh University, taken down by a student, 1796-97. (Edinburgh University Library Mss. Gen. 48D).
  6. Morrell, J.B., Ambix 16, 66-80 (1969).
  7. "The Life of Sir Robert Christison", edited by his sons, 1 (Blackwood, Edinburgh & London, 1885), pp.57-9.
  8. Wilson, G. & Geikie. A., "Memoir of Edward Forbes" (Macmillan, Cambridge & London, 1861), p.99.
  9. Fisher, G.P., "Life of Benjamin Silliman", 1 (Sampson Low, London, 1866), pp.158-61.
  10. Cockburn, H., "Letters chiefly connected with The Affairs of Scotland" (Ridgway, London, 1874), pp.137-8.
  11. Partington, J.R., Annals of Science 5,157-166 (1947); ibid. 7, 95-100 (1951).
  12. Hope, T .C., Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 4 , 3-39 (1798).
  13. Hope, T .C., ibid., 5 (1805),379-405.