William Brownrigg

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William Brownrigg M.D. F.R.S. (24 March 1711 – 1800) was a doctor and scientist, who practised at Whitehaven in Cumberland. While there, William Brownrigg carried out experiments that won him not only a place in The Royal Society but the prized Copley Medal.

Early life and education

He was born at High Close Hall, the son of local gentry, George Brownrigg. William's mother, Mary Brownrigg, was from Ireland.

William was educated in Latin and Greek by a local clergyman from the age of 13 and by the age of 15 was apprenticed to an apothecary in Carlisle. Then followed two years studying under a surgeon in London before going to Leiden where he studied under Boerhaave, 's Gravesande, van Royen and Albinus. He graduated in 1737 with his thesis "De Praxi Medica Ineunda" – about the environment where the clinician practices medicine.

Medical career

Brownrigg returned to England and took up medicine with an established doctor called Richard Senhouse in Whitehaven. Senhouse died soon after, making Brownrigg the principal doctor in the area for many years to come. His casebook survives and was recently transcribed.[1] It contains descriptions of his patients and remedies and some of the earliest English references to puerperal fever.[2]

In 1741, Brownrigg married Mary Spedding. Mary's father and uncle ran the collieries for James Lowther, whose family had developed Whitehaven into a major seaport. This increased William's local influence and also promoted his interest in the health and welfare of the miners.

Later in 1771, with the threat of an epidemic from Europe, Brownrigg who had studied the subject from outbreaks of typhus at Whitehaven, published a paper "Considerations on the means of pestilential contagion, and of Eradicating it in Infected Places."


His medical interest led him to investigate the gases the miners breathed – fire damp (methane) and choke damp (oxygen depleted air). Carlisle Spedding helped to build a laboratory for Brownrigg and fed it with gases from a nearby coal mine through lead pipes. Brownrigg developed methods of collecting and transferring the gases and supplied James Lowther with gas filled bladders to show to The Royal Society which then elected Brownrigg as a Fellow.

His experiments on gases continued and after visiting a spa resort in Germany he became interested in gases to be found in mineral waters. A paper he published entitled "Experimental inquiry concerning the nature of the mineral elastic spirit or air contained in the Pouhon water, and other acidulae" earned him the prestigious Copley Medal in 1766.

Discovery of platinum

Brownrigg's relative, Charles Wood, had brought samples of platinum back from Jamaica. Brownrigg wrote up Wood's experiments and did some of his own. He was the first to recognise it as a new element and brought the new metal to the attention of The Royal Society stressing its possible importance and the need for more investigation.[3]

Salt manufacture

Brownrigg also produced a major treatise on salt manufacture. He hoped that improved domestic production could make Britain self-sufficient in this valuable resource thereby improving the fishing industry and economy both in Britain and America.[4]


In 1771 Benjamin Franklin was on a tour of Britain with Sir John Pringle who advised him to visit William Brownrigg. Franklin stayed at Brownrigg's home of Ormathwaite in the Lake District and was presented with a signed copy of his book on salt.[5] Franklin demonstrated his experiment of adding oil to the water surface of Derwent Water to calm the waves. He later corresponded with Brownrigg on the subject leading to another paper for The Royal Society's transactions.

Other interests

Brownrigg was a businessman as well as a doctor and scientist. He went into partnership with Anthony Bacon from Whitehaven in 1765 to develop the iron industry in Wales which led to the expansion of Merthyr Tydfil, particularly the Cyfarthfa Ironworks.[6] He also inherited a share of John Speddings ropery and invested in the Keswick Turnpike Trust.

With his retirement to Ormathwaite, he became interested in improving the local agriculture, made a study of minerals, and encouraged Father Thomas West to write A Guide to the Lakes, the first guide book to the Lake District. He had several society positions including magistrate, Patent searcher at Port Carlisle and Receiver General of Government Taxes for Cumberland and Westmorland.

Brownrigg died in 1800 and was buried at Crosthwaite church where his coffin was carried by three baronets and other local gentry. His friend and biographer Dr. Joshua Dixon felt that his importance and abilities had been overlooked due to his modesty and reluctance to leave his home county of Cumberland in later life.


  1. Jean E. Ward, The Medical Casebook of William Brownrigg, (Joan Yell Pub. 1993: Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine: ISBN 0-85484-125-3
  2. Irvine Loudon, The Tragedy of Childbed Fever (Oxford University Press 2000: ISBN 0-19-820499-X), p17
  3. An Encyclopaedia of the History of Technology By Ian McNeil Pub. 1990 Taylor & Francis: ISBN 0-415-01306-2
  4. The Art of Making Common Salt... by William Brownrigg Published 1748 C. Davis
  5. Edwin Wolf, The Library of Benjamin Franklin (Kevin J. Hayes 2006: ISBN 0-87169-257-0), p. 47.
  6. Welsh Biography Online

Further reading

  • Dixon, Joshua (1801). The literary Life of William Brownrigg, M. D. to which are added an Account of the Coal Mines near Whitehaven, and Observations on the Means of preventing Epidemic Fevers. Cumbria Record Office.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Phillips, Richard (1817). Annals of Philosophy. Baldwin, Cradock, and Joy.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Clarke (1834). The Georgian Era Vol III. Vizetelly, Branston and Co.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links