Robert Boyle, often known as the father of modern chemistry, was the seventh and youngest son of Richard Boyle the first Earl of Cork. He was born at Lismore Castle, Co. Waterford, Ireland on January 27 1627. His education was typical for the son of an aristocrat at the time. He was tutored at home before being sent to Eton. When he left Eton, he went to mainland Europe where he continued his studies in France, Italy and Switzerland. Throughout his life, he was a devout Christian.
When he returned from Europe in 1644, he settled in Dorset at an estate left to him by his father in Stalbridge. He started writing but his early writings were not of a scientific nature. His first published work was “Aretology”. This was a treatise on “Ethicall Elements” dealing with morality as a pursuit of virtue.
In 1649, he turned his keen mind to the study of chemistry and alchemy. To this end, he had a laboratory built at his home. Boyle also made observations of living organisms using a microscope. At the time, few scientists used experiments to prove their theories. Instead, scientists would use arguments based on the scientific theories expounded by the Greek scientists like Aristotle two thousand years previously.
In 1655 or 1656, Boyle moved to Oxford where he joined John Wilkins’ group of natural philosophers. He also engaged Robert Hooke as an assistant. It was with Hooke’s aid that he built a vacuum pump, which he used in the experimental work leading to the formulation of Boyle’s Law. This law states, “Under conditions of constant temperature, the pressure and volume of a gas are inversely proportional”.
With a group of eleven other scientists, he started the Royal Society in 1660. This society would meet regularly to witness scientific experiments and discuss scientific topics.
In 1668, he moved again this time to London where he lived with his sister. In 1680, he refused to accept the presidency of the Royal Society as the oath he would have been required to swear went against his firmly held religious principals.
Boyle’s experimental work over the years provided a foundation for modern chemistry and physics. He was the first scientist to produce and recognize a gas. His research showed the differences between acids bases and salts. He also discerned the differences between chemical compounds and mixtures of chemicals. A believer in the atomic theory he referred to what we know now as atoms as “corpuscles”.
He wrote on many subjects. “The Sceptical Chemist” (1661) criticized Aristotle’s theory that all matter was formed of the four elements earth, air, fire and water. “Origin of Forms and Qualities According to the Corpuscular Philosophy” (1666) detailed the atomic theory of matter. Many of his published works such as “Discourse of Things Above Reason” (1681) reflected his views on religion and the relationship between God and the world around us.
The brilliant and innovative scientist Robert Boyle died in London on December 31 1691. He left money in his will to set up a series of lectures designed to defend the Christian religion against atheists. The religious scholar Richard Bentley made the first of these Boyle Lectures in 1692