The Lives of Two Pioneering Medical Chemists in Bristol: Thomas Beddoes and William Herapath


Professor Brian Vincent, School of Chemistry, University of Bristol

31 March 2016



The second half of the 18th century saw chemistry emerge as a fledgling science. Up till then there was little understanding of the true nature of matter. The classical Greek idea that matter consisted of four basic elements (earth, fire, water and air) still held sway, as did the practice of alchemy: the search for the “elixir of life” and for the “philosophers’ stone” which would turn base metals into gold. Also, the “phlogiston” theory of fire was still to the forefront. This idea proposed that when any material, such as wood, burnt an integral component, phlogiston, was released.

The new thinking originated with the discovery that “air” was not a single substance, as previously supposed, but rather was made of a mixture of different substances. Leading the way were a group of British scientists, starting with Joseph Black in Glasgow, who isolated carbon dioxide from air in the early 1750s; one of his pupils, Daniel Rutherford, discovered nitrogen in 1772. The Yorkshireman, Joseph Priestley is generally credited with discovering oxygen in 1774. He went on to discover several other gases including carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, and nitrous and nitric oxides.  Meanwhile Henry Cavendish, in London, had discovered hydrogen in 1766. Moreover, Antoine Lavoisier, in Paris in the late 1770s, showed that combustion involves the material concerned combining with oxygen, thus demolishing the phlogiston theory. 

In the medical field, physicians and apothecaries, at that time, still prescribed in the main long-established, natural drugs based largely on plant extracts. This essay tells the story of two pioneering chemists in Bristol who based their medical practice on the newly discovered gases of different kinds.


Thomas Beddoes (1760-1808)

Beddoes, the son of a wealthy tanner, was born in Shropshire, and was educated at Bridgnorth grammar school. In 1776 he went to Pembroke College, Oxford to study medicine. During the vacations Beddoes attended the meetings of the “Lunar Society”, which met in and around Birmingham; here he would have met Joseph Priestly and other radical thinkers.

After gaining his BA at Oxford in 1781, Beddoes moved to London to study anatomy with the famed teacher, Dr Sheldon. He moved back to Oxford in 1783 and took his MA degree. However, he decided to spend part of his time in Edinburgh in order to attend lectures in chemistry by Joseph Black (who by then had moved from Glasgow), since Beddoes, like Black, saw chemistry as the key to future developments in medicine. He gained his MD degree from Oxford in 1876. In the summer of 1787 he visited Antoine Lavoisier in Paris. Afterwards Beddoes took up an appointment as a reader in chemistry back at Oxford. However, he was never really happy in this post. The facilities were poor for his research and the authorities (an increasingly his students also) took a dim view of his radical religious and political views – in particular his support for the revolution in France. Beddoes resigned his post in 1792.

Beddoes decided to move to Bristol, where his political and religious views would be more sympathetically received. He was particularly concerned with the plight of the poor, since tuberculosis and other contagious diseases were endemic in the new industrialised towns. Beddoes was keen to apply the new gases to try to treat such diseases. In Hotwells the medical “spa” was long-established. So, in the spring of 1793, Beddoes opened a clinic (the “Pneumatic Institution”) at 11 Hope Square, Hotwells. Two of the patients who underwent the new gas treatment were Tom Wedgewood and Gregory Watt, the sons of two of his old Lunar Society friends: Josiah Wedgewood and James Watt.

Beddoes set up home in Clifton, at 3 Rodney Place. In 1794, he married Anna Edgeworth, who was thirteen years his junior. They had four children; their elder son, Thomas Lovell Beddoes (1803-1849) became one of the leading romantic poets. It was through Anna’s younger sister, Maria, herself a writer, that Beddoes met three young poets then residing in Bristol: Robert Lovell, Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Beddoes and Coleridge campaigned together in Bristol against slavery, in support (initially, at least) of the French Revolution and, in particular, against the so-called “gagging bills” which Prime Minister Pitt had introduced to suppress dissident political views.

For several years Beddoes had been trying to raise money to establish a bigger and better institution in Bristol, where he could further his research as well as treat patients. Eventually sufficient money was raised to open the new “Pneumatic Institution” at 6-7 Dowry Square in July 1799. That year Beddoes appointed a 19-year-old, precocious young man from Penzance, Humphry Davy, as the first superintendent of the new Institution. At Beddoes’ suggestion, Davy started working on the gas nitrous oxide to see if it had any medical uses. Davy found it acted as a stimulant and mood enhancer, with strong psychedelic and hallucinogenic effects. So, rather than acting as a medical drug as such, it soon became a “recreational” drug, which Davy shared with his new friends in Bristol.  It was to become known as “Laughing Gas”.

By now, the efficacy of Beddoes treatments was beginning to be questioned. Moreover, he had upset the local population somewhat.  Firstly, he had set up a byre in Dowry Square to house cows, whose breath (rich in carbon dioxide) he thought might be used to treat tuberculosis patients. Secondly, there was the episode of the “plague of frogs”, when a consignment of these creatures he had ordered for some experiments escaped during unloading in the City docks.

In 1800, a new chemical passion caught Davy’s imagination in Dowry Square: the use of Voltaic cells to produce gases by the process we now call electrolysis, in particular oxygen and hydrogen from water. However, in 1801 Davy was “poached” by the recently established Royal Institution in London.  Thereafter Beddoes himself became increasingly more interested in promoting preventative medicine and health awareness amongst the poor in Bristol. He renamed his Dowry Square institute “the Bristol Medical Institution” and he opened a second practice in the midst of the city docks, on Broad Quay. The Medical Institution closed in 1807, after Beddoes himself became ill. He died on Dec 24 1808, aged 48. The autopsy showed that he had a collapsed left lung. He is buried in the Strangers Burial Ground off Lower Clifton Hill, where the plaque shown below may be found. 


William Herapath (1796-1864)

William Herapath was born Bristol and was brought up for most of his childhood in the “Packhorse” public house in Lawrence Hill, which his father ran, together with the associated brewery. When his father died William inherited this thriving business, but he did not want to follow his father's profession. He was more interested in chemistry and began to develop an analytical chemistry practice working with local industries in and around Bristol. His first published paper in 1823 was concerned with the analysis of cadmium in zinc dust.

Herapath married Sophia Bird in 1819 and they set up home at 2 Old Park, near St Michael’s Hill. Like Beddoes, he was passionately interested in local and national politics. He was elected Vice President of the Bristol Political Union. He was very concerned about problems of public hygiene and campaigned strongly for public baths and washhouses. When, in 1831, the House of Lords rejected the first reform bill protests were held around the country. In Bristol these culminated in the infamous “Bristol Riots” which took place over the last weekend in October 1831. The mob attacked (and in many cases set fire to) various buildings in Bristol. Herepath, who had been appointed a “Special Constable”, tried in vain to prevent the crowd from breaking down the gates of the new Bristol Gaol on Cumberland Road. The reform bill was finally passed in 1832 and Herapath served as a Liberal member on the newly reformed Bristol Corporation from 1835 to 1863. He also became a Senior Magistrate in Bristol.

All this political activity did not affect Herapath’s medical and scientific work. In 1833 he was appointed as a lecturer (and subsequently professor) in chemistry and toxicology at the newly founded Bristol Medical School (located behind Park Row). He was a founding member of the Chemical Society (forerunner of the Royal Society of Chemistry) in London in 1841.

Although it had been used previously in London, in January 1847 Herapath was the first person in Bristol to administer a gas (ether) as a general anesthetic during an operation; he assisted the surgeon during a leg amputation on a young man at the Bristol General Hospital. Herapath was very familiar with the work of Beddoes and Davy, and, a few days after this operation, he used nitrous oxide as a general anesthetic during a tooth extraction, again for the first time in Bristol.

Part of Herapath’s role within the Bristol Medical School was as a chemical analyst. In this context he analysed the composition of the Hotwells Spring water. He is, however, chiefly remembered for his work as a forensic chemical analyst. He was the first person to devise a definitive test for arsenic in a corpse. He gave evidence in many famous court cases involving poisoning.

A major outbreak of cholera occurred in Bristol 1832, and then again in 1849. Herapath held the conventional view that cholera emanated from the putrid “poison”, associated with decaying animal flesh, which is inhaled into the lungs. He even suggested a chemical cure: fumigation with a mixture of black manganese oxide and common table salt, onto which vitriol (sulphuric acid) was poured. However, the real heroes in the fight against cholera in Bristol were a group of other doctors in the City (including William Budd, a doctor at the Infirmary, but also a director of the Waterworks company), who came to realize that cholera was not carried in the air, but in contaminated drinking water.

William Herapath retired from his post at the Medical School in 1867. He was a diabetic and died at home in February 1868 aged 71. His grave is in Arnos Vale Cemetery.

The Herapath family in Bristol may be considered as a minor scientific dynasty. William’s cousin John Herapath (born 1790 in Bristol, but later moved to London) was an applied mathematician and theoretical physicist. William’s eldest son, William Bird Herapath FRS (born 1820), was both a surgeon and a scientist (he received his FRS for his discovery of the first light-polarising crystal, subsequently named “herapathite”). In addition, William’s youngest son, Thornton John Herapath (born 1830) carried out some significant research as a chemical analyst, but sadly died when he was only 28. John Herapath’s second son, Spencer (born 1821), became a civil engineer. The son, grandson and great-grandson of William Bird Herapath all became doctors in and around Bristol. So five, successive generations of the same family worked in the city as medical practitioners or scientists.

Unlike Thomas Beddoes, there are no plaques to commemorate where any of the Herapaths lived or worked. However, the Herapath family is remembered in Barton Hill, where a road, “Herapath Street”, was named in their honour.


Brian Vincent


Further reading

This essay is based on two recent booklets:

[1] Brian Vincent & Raymond Holland, Chemistry in Bristol into the Early 20th Century, (ALHA books, no 18), 2014.

[2] Brian Vincent, The Herapaths of Bristol: a Medical and Scientific Dynasty, (ALHA books, no 21), 2016.

Each is priced at £3.50. Please email [email protected] for further information.