Richard Kirwan (1733-1812)

Richard Kirwan, a founding member of the Royal Irish Society, was born in Cloughballymore, Co. Galway, the second son of Martin Kirwan and Mary French. He attended the University of Poitiers in France from about 1750. In 1754 he entered the Jesuit novitiate at Saint-Omer (Paris), but he returned to Ireland, when his elder brother (and the heir to the family estates) was killed in a duel in 1755. Back in Galway, he soon fitted up a laboratory and amassed a library. Following a brief foray into law (he was called to the Irish Bar in 1766), he returned to science.

While living in London for a while, Richard became Fellow of the Royal Society (1780) and wrote a series of papers on chemical affinity (for which he received the prestigious Copley Medal), in addition to the volume Elements of Mineralogy (1784) and his best-known book, Essay on Phlogiston (1787). Lavoisier and others (including Sligoman William Higgins) proved him wrong, and Richard did exactly what scientists ought to do when experiments demonstrates that a theory is shaky, he publicly acknowledged “the subversion of the phlogisitic hypothesis.”

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Having moved to Dublin in 1787, Richard helped to found the Royal Irish Society, in 1799 becoming its president, a position he retained until his death. Apart from his widely acknowledged chemical skills, Richard made also important contributions to mineralogy, meteorology and climatology; he published a two-volume work on logic; and a volume of essays on metaphysics.

Richard Kirwan was a devout, orthodox Christian. For Richard, geology was the handmaiden of true religion, and he repeatedly expressed alarm at systems of geology that struck him as favorable to atheism. His Geological Essays (1799) advocates flood geology and vigorously opposes the increasingly influential uniformitarian theories of geologist James Hutton.