Enlightenment and Economy

Joseph Black’s chair, late 18th century.

The peaceful passing of a venerable chemist.

He died in 1799, while sitting at table, with his usual fare, a few prunes, some bread, and a little milk diluted with water. Having the cup in his hand, he set it carefully down on his knees, and in this attitude, without spilling a drop, Joseph Black, styled by Lavoisier ‘the illustrious Nestor of the chemical revolution’, expired placidly, as if an experiment had been wanted to show his friends the ease with which he could die.” [Old and New Edinburgh, by James Grant, vol. IV, 1880]

The School of Chemistry

Victorian locket containing a lock of Black’s hair, 1875.

A personal memento.

The inscription on the locket states that Joseph Black presented the locket of hair to his niece Letitia Younghusband (1756–1833). The date of the locket is 1875. Lord Cockburn wrote of Black, “He was a striking and beautiful person; tall, very thin, and cadaverously pale; his hair carefully powdered, though there was little of it except what was collected into a long thin queue…

Special Collections Medal No. 205

Sample of arsenic, a portion of the original from the Madeleine Smith trial, 1857.

Key evidence from Scotland’s most famous murder trial of the 19th century.

Madeleine Smith was indicted for the murder of her lover Pierre Emile L’Angelier. On attempting to end the relationship, L’Angelier threatened to expose her letters to force her to marry him. He was found dead from arsenic poisoning in March 1857, and Madeleine was charged. Her purchase of a number of samples of arsenic was a key piece of evidence in the trial. The final verdict was “not proven”. The sample on display was from Mr Currie’s drug shop, and is coloured with indigo, as per the law at that time.

The School of Chemistry





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