April 16 is Hans Sloane’s birthday. Sloane was an Irish physician whose greatest contribution to science actually occurred after his death.
During his lifetime, he was an avid collector of interesting items pertaining natural history. He amassed a large collection of books, notes, drawings, samples of plants and animals, and many curiosities. His will stipulated that upon his death, his personal collection would be offered intact to the British government for the sum of £20,000 for his heirs. Parliament jumped at the offer. They established the British Museum to house their new collection in 1753.
Unfortunately, the government appointees weren’t very good caretakers. Much of Sloane’s collection was destroyed through careless handling. Some specimens were sold off to the Royal College of Surgeons. Biological specimens were burned as they aged, so none of Sloane’s insect collection survived by 1833. The reputation of the museum’s ability to care for its own exhibits was so poor the Treasury refused to fund replacement expeditions. It wasn’t until the paleontologist Richard Owen took over the Natural History department in 1856 that the Museum would start to become what it is today.
Notable Science History Events for April 16
1958 – Rosalind Elsie Franklin died.
Franklin was an English biophysicist best known for x-ray crystallography photographs establishing the double helix structure of DNA. Her photograph was instrumental to Crick and Watson’s research and subsequent Nobel Prize. She was not recognized for her part in this discovery until after Watson wrote about it in his book. She died of cancer before the Nobel Prize was awarded and prize winners must be alive when nominated.
1867 – Wilbur Wright was born.
Wilber was the elder of the Wright brothers who were the first to accomplish controlled and sustained powered flight. Their aircraft used three axes of control to maintain steady flight: pitch, yaw, and roll which is the standard control for planes to this day.
1850 – Sidney Gilchrist Thomas was born.
Thomas was a British metallurgist who developed a process to remove phosphorus impurities from iron ores to improve the strength of steel. He added burned limestone to the mixture to increase the alkalinity. The phosphorus would attach itself to the calcium in the form of calcium phosphate (Ca3(PO4)2). The calcium phosphate would accumulate in the slag waste products.
1838 – Ernest Solvay was born.
Solvay was a Belgian chemist who developed the industrial process to create soda ash (anhydrous sodium carbonate). His ammonia-soda process or Solvay process would use brine (salt water) and limestone (calcium carbonate) reacting together in a large tower to create large amounts of soda ash to be used in glass and soap manufacturing.
1756 – Jacques Cassini died.
Cassini II was a French astronomer who was the son of the Italian astronomer, Giovanni Cassini. He compiled the first tables of the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn’s moons and succeeded his father as director of the Paris Observatory. He also proposed the theory that the Earth was shaped like an ellipsoid rather than just flattened at the poles.
1728 – Joseph Black was born.
Black was a Scottish chemist who was one of the founders of thermochemistry. He discovered that when ice melts, the temperature does not change leading to the idea of specific or latent heat. He also researched carbon dioxide or what he called ‘fixed air’. This research led to the discovery of bicarbonates.