In 1935, John Kendall, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Edinburgh, wrote to the Journal of Chemical Education with what one can imagine was more than a hint of glee. He reported that there was a list of names, written in Joseph Black’s hand, under the heading “List of the Members of the Chemical Society“. These names had previously been thought to have been people from the city of Edinburgh with an interest in chemistry, or indeed those drawn from the general population of the country.
Kendall had the simple but ingenious idea of checking the register of students of the University of Edinburgh from this period, and in a productive 15 minutes, he identified 53 of the 59 names immediately. He wrote that “the right names tumbled out of the register just like ripe apples from a tree when shaken“. The remaining names could be accounted for by transcription errors. Thus the list of names written in Joseph Black’s hand were considered to be members of Black’s class, and therefore it can be considered as the original Chemical Society of the University of Edinburgh. Prior to this, the oldest society was considered to be the Chemical Society of Philadelphia (1792). The nationality of 19 on the list is given (those who were medical graduates). Three were Scottish, three were English, and the remaining 13 were Irish; step forward Bicker McDonald…
How do we know this group functioned as a society? Kendall gives an update on the story in 1953, in his book “Great Discoveries by Young Chemists“. He received a letter from Rev PJ McLaughlin in 1947. The good Reverend had discovered a folio that had been given to the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, in 1846. This contained a collection of “Dissertations read before the Chemical Society instituted in the beginning of the Year 1785”. Edinburgh is mentioned within, and the names of the 32 contributors match some of those on Black’s list. Kendall requested that the volume be loaned to the Royal Society of Edinburgh, where upon examination, he realised it was the first book of Proceedings of the Chemical Society of the University of Edinburgh. Published in 1785, it has the honour of being the world’s first chemistry journal, preceding Annales de Chimie by 5 years.
Kendall requested that the book of proceedings to be returned to Edinburgh, and on 25 November, 1947, the Council of the Royal Irish Academy agreed to return the folio to its original home. Kendall concludes with a paragraph that makes me think that we would have got on quite well:
And now, my readers, if you possess friends with a common interest in chemistry, don’t you think it would be well worth while to start a chemical society of your own for the discussion of topics of current importance ? You might even keep a record of the papers presented by members at the meetings of such a society, and this record might help chemical historians of the year 2100 to appreciate the scientific problems of today.