Joseph Black1728–1799

Fixed air

Black was born in Bordeaux to parents who were Irish and Scottish, and were in the wine trade. He studied arts at Glasgow and medicine at Edinburgh and became professor of medicine at Glasgow University in 1757. James Watt (1736-1819) was active as an instrument maker at Glasgow University at that time and they worked together on several projects, including early ideas about the steam engine. However, it was in the field of chemistry that he left his greatest mark: Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794) referred to him as “the illustrious Nestor of the chemical revolution”. His interests in chemistry had been kindled by Cullen, who initiated teaching of the subject in Glasgow. It was in his medical thesis at Edinburgh where Black described his experiments on ‘fixed air’, or what is now known as carbon dioxide. His portrait is shown in the black lettering of the symbols of this substance. He also conducted novel experiments on latent and specific heats. In 1766 Black moved to Edinburgh where he succeeded Cullen in the chairs of chemistry and medicine.