Ireland reveals rich scientific history

7 Nov 2011

Ireland can be known as not only the land of saints and scholars, but of scientists, too

Robert Boyle, Ernest Walton, William Rowan Hamilton, Ellen Hutchins and Cynthia Evelyn Longfield are some of the many scientists who shaped Irish history and marked the path that leads to the future. As once said by the 1911 Literature Nobel Prize winner, Maurice Maeterlinck: “At every crossroads on the path that leads to the future, tradition has placed 10,000 men to guard the past.”

According to the book by David Attis and R Charles Mollan, Science and Irish Culture – Why the History of Science Matters in Ireland, “from the settlement of Ireland in the 17th century by English and Scottish adventurers intent on promoting the latest scientific and technological advances, to the flourishing of scientific institutions in Ireland at the height of its Georgian splendour, to a temporary decline of scientific activity at the time of Irish independence, and a spectacular increase of State interest in science and economic development in the 1990s, science has played a critical role in the development of Ireland”.

A selection of the ‘10,000 men who guard the past’ are presented below in an attempt to examine some of the most notable elements of Irish science over the last few centuries.


·        Robert Boyle (1627–1691) was born at Lismore Castle, Co Waterford. Sometimes referred to as the ‘Father of Chemistry’, Boyle is regarded as the first modern chemist. He wrote The Sceptical Chymist, which put forward his theory that matter consists of atoms and clusters of atoms in motion. He is probably best known for Boyle’s Law, which describes the inverse relationship between the volume of a gas and its absolute pressure at constant temperature.

·        Edward Joseph Conway (1894–1965), who was born in Nenagh, Co Tipperary, was an international authority on electrolyte physiology. He published two books: Microdiffusion Analysis and Volumetric Error and The Biochemistry of Gastric Acid Secretion. In 1932, he was appointed chair of biochemistry and pharmacology in University College Dublin. He developed a microburette and diffusion unit – the Conway Unit – which became a standard method of microanalysis. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1947 and received the Boyle medal in 1968. His key areas of research were renal function, ionic balance of tissue and acid secretion by yeast and gastric mucosa.

·        Kathleen Lonsdale (1903–1971) was born in Newbridge, Co Kildare, and became an early pioneer of X-ray crystallography. She was the first person to prove that the benzene ring is flat. She was the first female professor at University College London, where she was professor of chemistry, and was jointly the first woman elected to fellowship of the Royal Society in 1945. A dedicated pacifist, she spent a month in jail in 1943 for her convictions.

·        Denis Burkitt (1911–1993) was born in Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh and, after qualifying as a surgeon, worked in Uganda for a number of years. It was there in 1957 that he described for the first time Burkitt’s lymphoma, a pediatric cancer of the lymphatic system. In the early 1960s after travelling around Africa, he mapped the geographical spread of the disease and demonstrated that it is transmitted by mosquitoes through the spread of the Epstein-barr virus. Burkitt later moved to London where he focused on the importance of fibre in the diet.

·        Richard Kirwan (1733–1812), who was known for being both a scientist and eccentric, was born in 1733 in Cloghballymore, Co Galway. He was a committed supporter of the Phlogiston theory. Having spent a number of years in London, he returned to Ireland in 1787 and, in the same year, his Essay on Phlogiston was published. He was active in the areas of chemistry, geology and meteorology. One of his meteorological studies involved constructing a table showing the temperature of every latitude between the equator and the poles.

·        Ellen Hutchins (1785–1815) was an early Irish botanist who was born in Ballylickey, Co Cork. Hutchins was an avid collector of cryptogrammic, or non-flowering plants, such as mosses, lichens and algae, particularly around her home in Bantry. She contributed to James Townsend Mackay’s (1775–1862) Flora Hibernica. William Henry Harvey (1881–1866), professor of botany in Trinity College, wrote about her: “To her the botany of Ireland is under many obligations, particularly the cryptogamic branch, in which field, until her time little explored, she was particularly fortunate in detecting new and beautiful objects, several of which remain the rarest species to the present day.”

·        Cynthia Evelyn Longfield (1896–1991) was a dragonfly expert and explorer, who was born in Cloyne, Co Cork. From an Anglo-Irish family, she had a strong interest in botany. For much of her life she volunteered at the Natural History Museum in London. She travelled extensively throughout Europe, South America, the Pacific, Africa and Asia. Her books include The Dragonflies of the British Isles and Dragonflies.

·        Mary Ward (1827–1869) was born near Ferbane, Co Offaly as Mary King and was a first cousin of astronomer William Parsons, third Earl of Rosse. She is known as a microscopist, artist, entomologist and author. Her books include The World of Wonders Revealed by the Microscope and Telescope Teachings.


·        Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton (1874–1922) was born in Kilkea House, Kildare but moved to England with his family at the age of 11. His first major polar trip was as third officer on Scott’s expedition to Antarctica in 1901. He returned there in 1907 as leader of the Nimrod expedition and managed to travel further south than anyone had up until that stage.  He is also known for the Endurance or Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition from 1914 to 1917.

·        Francis Beaufort (1774–1857), who was born in Navan, Co Meath, is best known for developing the Beaufort scale, which classifies the force of wind velocity at sea. He also developed a system of classifying the weather’s various states by letters of the alphabet. He was in active service in the British Royal Navy for more than 20 years. He was latter appointed hydrographer to the Admiralty.

·        William Parsons, Third Earl of Rosse was born in England and brought up at Birr Castle, Co Offaly. In 1845, he built a reflecting telescope at Birr with a 1.83m (72-inch) diameter mirror, making it the world’s largest telescope for the next 70 years. Using the telescope, Parsons was able to discover that many galaxies are spiral in shape.

·        William Rowan Hamilton (1805–1865) was born in Dublin and is reputed to have been familiar with up to 15 languages by the age of 10. He was appointed professor of astronomy at Trinity College, Dublin and Royal Astronomer of Ireland by the time he was 22. As well as being an astronomer, he was a physician and mathematician and, probably most notably, was the inventor of the method of quanternions.


·        Nicholas Joseph Callan (1799–1864) was born near Ardee, Co Louth, and was ordained as a priest in 1823. He was appointed professor of natural philosophy at Maynooth in 1826. Callan had a strong interest in electrical phenomena and his most notable contribution was inventing the induction coil, which ultimately resulted in the modern step-up voltage transformer.

·         John Tyndall (1820–1893) was born in Leighlinbridge Co Carlow. He is ranked as one of Ireland’s most successful scientists, as well as one of the greatest scientists overall in the 19th century. In 1853 he was appointed professor of natural philosophy (physics) at The Royal Institution in London. In 1867, he succeeded Michael Faraday as director of the Institution. While there, he carried pioneering work in a range of areas, including radiant heat, germ theory of disease and glacier motion. He is probably best known for his explanation that the scattering of light by small particles in the atmosphere causes the sky to be blue. He also invented a method for destroying bacteria in food, called Tyndallisation. And, he invented the first double beam spectrophotometer. 

·         William Thomson (1824–1907) (Lord Kelvin) was born in Belfast. A world-renowned physicist, he was appointed professor of natural philosophy at Glasgow University in 1846, a position he held until 1899. He is best known for defining the absolute scale of temperature, the Kelvin scale, in 1847. He was very involved in developing the second law of thermodynamics.

·         George Francis Fitzgerald (1851–1901) was born in Dublin and, in 1881, became professor of natural and experimental philosophy at TCD. He is best known for his theory – the Fitzgerald-Lorentz Contraction – that a moving body contracts in the direction of its motion. The theory was used as in Einstein’s special theory of relativity.

·         George Johnstone Stoney (1826-1911) was born in Dun Laoghaire and became professor of natural philosophy at Queens College, Galway (NUI Galway today). His most notable scientific work was his conception and calculation of the magnitude of the ‘atom’ of electricity, for which he proposed the name ‘electron’.

·         John Desmond Bernal (1901-1971) was born in Nenagh, Co Tipperary. He was a professor of physics at Birbeck College, University of London, where he developed the technique of modern X-ray crystallography and led a group that used the technique to work out the 3D structure of proteins, viruses and nucleic acids.

·         Ernest Walton (1903–1995), who was born in Dungarvan, Co Waterford, is the only Irish person to win a Nobel Prize in science to date. He was a pioneering nuclear physicist who, together with another research student at Cambridge, John Cockcroft, designed and built the first successful particle accelerator, which enabled them to disintegrate lithium, or split the atom, in the early 1930s. He was professor of physics at Trinity College, Dublin from 1947 to 1974 and, together with Cockcroft, was awarded the 1951 Nobel Prize for physics.

·         John Bell (1928–1990) was born in Belfast. He worked as a nuclear physicist in the UK before moving to Geneva in 1960 when he joined CERN, the European Centre for Nuclear Research. In CERN, he developed Bell’s theorem, which is also called Bell’s inequality, which is significant in quantum physics.

·        Sir Joseph Larmor (1857-1942) was a physicist and mathematician who made innovations in the understanding of electricity, dynamics, thermodynamics and the electron theory of matter. His most influential work was Aether and Matter, a theoretical physics book published in 1900.

Computer science/ IT/ mathematics

·        George Boole (1815–1864) was born in Lincoln and, in 1849, was appointed the first professor of mathematics at Queens College, Cork, which is now University College Cork. While he was there, he wrote An Investigation of the Laws of Thought, which includes his system of Boolean Algebra, which is now applied in the design and operation of computers and switching circuits.

Elena Irina Paşcu

Elean Irina Paşcu is a biomedical engineering and nursing graduate from Romania, currently an IRCSET-funded PhD candidate in tissue engineering and biomaterials science, at Dublin City University. Some of the sources referred to in compiling the information include, and

Some of the sources referred to in compiling the information include, and