Watson, Sir William

, eminent for his skill in botany and electricity, was born in 1715, in St. John’s-street, near Smithfield, where his father was a reputable tradesman. He was educated at Merchant Taylors’ school, and in 1730 was apprenticed to Mr. Richardson, an apothecary. In his youth he had a strong propensity to the study of natural history, and particularly to that of plants. This led him to make frequent excursions in- a morning, several miles from London so that he became early well acquainted with the indigenous plants of the environs of London; and, during his apprenticeship, he gained the honorary premium given annually by the apothecaries company to such ‘young men as exhibit a superiority in the knowledge of plants. In 1738 Mr. Watson married, and set up in business for himself. His skill and diligence in his profession soon distinguished him among his acquaintance, as did his taste for natural history and his, general knowledge of philosophical subjects among the members of the royal society, into which learned body he was elected in 1741; his first two communications being printed in the 41st volume of the Philosophical Transactions.

Soon alter his admission he distinguished himself as a botanist, and communicated some ingenious papers to the society, which are printed in their Transactions, particularly “Critical remarks on the Rev. Mr. Pickering’s paper concerning the Seeds of Mushrooms,’” which that gentleman considered as a new discovery, whereas Mr. Watson shewed that they had been demonstrated several years prior to that period by M. Micheli, in his “Nova plantarucn genera,” printed at Florence in 1729. But "that which attracted the attention of foreign botanists mostly, was his description of a rare and elegant species of fungus, called | from its form geaster. This was written in Latin, and accompanied with an engraving. In 1748 Mr. Watson had an opportunity of showing attention to M. Kalm, during his abode in England, which was from February till August, when‘ he embarked for America. He introduced him to the curious gardens, and accompanied hjm in several botanical excursions in the environs of London. This eminent pupil of Linnæus, who was a Swedish divine, on his return home, became professor of osconomy at Abo, where he died Nov. 16, 1779. (See Kalm.) The same civilities were manifested by Dr. Watson to the eminent Dr. Pallas, of Petersburgh, during his abode in England, which was from July 1761 to April 1762.

In 1749, in company with Dr. Mitchell, Mr. Watson examined the remains of the garden formerly belonging tothe Tradescants. They found the arbutus, and the cupressus Americana, with other exotics, in a vigorous state^ after having sustained the winters of this climate for one hundred and twenty years. This situation had also afforded a proof, not often exemplified, of the large size to which the common buckthorn will grow. They found one about twenty feet high, and near a foot in diameter. In 1751 were laid before the public some very curious and interesting particulars relating to the sexes of plants, which tended to confirm the truth of that doctrine in a remarkable manner. These were occasioned by a letter from Mr. Mylins, of Berlin, informing Mr. Watson that a tree of the palma major foliis ftabelliformilus, which, although it had borne fruit for thirty years past, had never brought any to perfection until the flowers of a male tree, brought from Leipsic, twenty German miles distant, had been suspended over its branches. After this operation, the tree yielded the first year above one hundred, and the second, upon repeating the experiment, above two thousand ripe fruit; from which eleven young palm-trees had been propagated.

Mr. Watson paid the same tribute, in 1751, to the memory of Dr. Henry Compton, bishop of London, the friend and patron of Mr. Kay, as he had done to that of the Tradescants; and gives a list of thirty-three exotic trees, which were then remaining in the garden at Fulham. From this catalogue may be inferred, not only the original splendour of the garden, and the zeal and taste the bishop shewed in the cultivation of such numerous curiosities, but | the facility with which trees of very different latitudes may become naturalized in England.

In the 45th volume of the Philosophical Transactions, we find “an account of the cinnamon-tree;” occasioned by a large specimen, equal in size to a walking cane, sent over by Mr. Robins to Dr. Leatherland, and which was exhibited to the inspection of the royal society. From this account we learn that three cinnamon trees, which were intended to have been sent to Jamaica, were growing in the garden of Hampton Court in the reign of king William.

Mr. Watson, about this time, was the first, his biographer apprehends, who communicated to the English reader an account of a revolution which was about to take place among the learned, in botany and zoology, respecting the removal of a large body of marine productions, which had heretofore been ranked among vegetables; but which were now proved to be of animal origin, and stand under the name of zoophytes, in the present system of nature. It may be easily seen that this respects the corals, corallines, escharae, madrepores, sponges, &c. and although even Ges* ner, Imperatus, and Rumphius, had some obscure ideas relating to the dubious structure of this class, yet the full discovery that these substances were the fabrications of polypes, was owing to JV1. Peyssonnel, physician at Guac*aloupe. This gentleman had imbibed this opinion first in 1723, at Marseilles, and confirmed it in 1725, on the coast of Barbary. While at Guadaloupe he wrote a volume of 400 pages in 4to, in proof of this subject, which he trant^ mitted in manuscript to the royal society of London. It was afterwards translated, analyzed, and abridged in 1752 by Mr. Watson, and published in vol. XLVII. of the Philosophical Transactions, at a time when the learned were wavering in their opinions on this matter.

Omitting the very minute account which Dr. Pulteney has given of every botanical communication made by Mr. Watson, we may observe that his talents rendered him a welcome visitor to sir Hans Sloane, who had retired to Chelsea in 1740. In fact, he enjoyed no small share of the favour and esteem of that veteran in science, and was honoured so far, as to be nominated one of the trustees of the British Museum by sir Hans himself. After its establishment in Montague house, Mr. Watson was very assiduous, not only in the internal arrangement of subjects, but also in procuring the garden to be furnished with plants, i

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| much that, in the first yearof its establishment, in 1756, it contained no fewer than 600 species, all in a flourishing state.

Nothing however contributed so much to extend Mr. Watson’s fame as his discoveries in electricity. He took up this subject about 1744, and made several important discoveries in it. At this time it was no small advancement in the progress of electricity, to be able to fire spirit of wine. He was the first in England who effected this, and he performed it, both by the direct and the repulsive power of electricity. He afterwards fired inflammable matter, gunpowder, and inflammable oils, by the same means. He also instituted several other experiments, which helped to enlarge the power of the electrician; but the most important of his discoveries was, the proving that the electric power was not created by the globe or tube, but only col* lected by it. Dr. Franklin and Mr. Wilson were alike fortunate about the same time. It is easy to see the extreme utility of this discovery in conducting all subsequent experiments. It soon led to what he called “the circulation of the electric matter.

Besides these valuable discoveries, the historian of electricity informs us that Mr. Watson first observed the different colour of the spark, as drawn from different bodies; that electricity suffered no refraction in passing through glass; that the power of electricity was not affected by the presence or absence of fire, since the sparks were equally strong from a freezing mixture, as from red-hot iron; that flame and smoke were conductors of electricity; and that the stroke was, as the points of contact of the non-electrics on the outside of the glass. This investigation led to the coating of phials, in order to increase the power of accumulation; and qualified him eminently to be the principal actor in those famous experiments, which were made on the Thames, and at Shooter’s Hill, in 1747 and 1748; in one of which the electrical circuit was extended four miles, in order to prove the velocity of electricity; the result of which convinced the attendants that it was instantaneous.

It ought also to be remembered, that Mr. Watson conducted some other experiments, with so much Sagacity and address, relating^ to the impracticability of transmitting odours, and the power of purgatives, through glass; and those relating to the exhibition of what was called the | glory round the head,” or the “beatification,” boasted to have been done by some philosophers on the continent; that he procured, at length, an acknowledgment from Mr. Bose, of what he called “an embellishment,” in conducting the experiments; a procedure totally incompatible with the true spirit of a philosopher!

Mr. Watson’s first papers on the subject of electricity were addressed, in three letters, to Martin Folkes, esq. president of the royal society, dated in March, April, and October, 1745, and were published in the Philosophical Transactions, under the title of ' Experiments and observations tending to illustrate the nature and properties of electricity.“These were followed in the beginning of the next year (1746) by” Farther Experiments, &c.“and these byA sequel to the Experiments," &c. These tracts were collected, and separately published in octavo, and reached to a third or fourth edition. They were of so interesting a nature that they gave him the lead, as it were, in this branch of philosophy; and were not only the means of raising him to a high degree of estimation at home, but of extending his fame throughout all Europe. His house became the resort of the most ingenious and illustrious experimental philosophers that England could boast. Several of the nobility attended on these occasions; and his present majesty George III. when prince of Wales, honoured him with his presence. In fact there needs no greater confirmation of his merit, at that early time, as an electrician, than the public testimony conferred upon him by the royal society, which, in 1745, presented him with sir Godfrey Copley’s medal, for his discoveries in electricity.

After this mark of distinction, Mr. Watson continued to prosecute electrical studies and experiments, and to write on the subject for many years. In 1772 he was appointed by the royal society to examine into the state of the powder magazines at Purfleet, and with the hon. Mr. Cavendish, Dr, Franklin, and Mr. Robertson, fixed on pointed conductors as preferable to blunt ones; and again, was of the committee in 1778, after the experiments of Mr. Wilson in the Pantheon.

Those who were acquainted with the extent of Mr. Watson’s knowledge in the practice of physic, in natural history, and experimental philosophy, were not surprised to see him rise into the higher rank of his profession. This | event took place in 1757, previous to which he had been chosen a member of the royal academy of Madrid, and he was created doctor of physic by the university of Halle. The same honour was conferred upon him by that of Wittemberg about the same time, soon after which he was disfranchised from the company of apothecaries. In 1759 he became a licentiate in the college of physicians. This alteration in his circumstances, hazardous as it might be considered by some, occasioned no diminution in his emoluments, but far the contrary. He had before this time removed from Aldersgate-street to Lincoln’s-inn-fields, where he lived the remainder of his days: and now he found himself at greater liberty to pursue his studies, and carry on at more leisure the extensive literary connexion in which he was engaged both at home and abroad. In Oct. 1762 he was chosen one of the physicians to the Foundling Hospital, which office he held during the remainder of his life.

Jn 1768 Dr. Watson published “An account of a series of Experiments, instituted with a view of ascertaining the most successful method of inoculating the Small-pox,” 8vo. These experiments were designed to prove whether there was any specific virtue in preparing medicines; whether the disease was more favourable when the matter was taken from the natural or the artificial pock; and whether the crude lymph, or the highly concocted matter, produced different effects. The result was, what succeeding and ample experience confirmed, that after due abstinence from animal food, and heating liquors, it is of small importance what kind of variolous matter is used; and that no preparatory specifics are to be regarded. Dr. Watson also published various papers in “The London Medical Observations,” and other similar works, of which it is unnecessary to give a detailed account, as they are well known to medical practitioners.

As Dr. Watson lived in intimacy with the most illustrious and learned fellows of the royal society, so he was himself one of its most active members, and ever zealous in promoting the ends of that institution. For many years he was a frequent member of the council; and, during the presidentship of sir John Pringle, was elected one of the vice-presidents; which honourable office he continued to fill to the end of his days. He was a most constant attendant on the public meetings of the society; and on the | private associations of its members, especially on that formerly held every Thursday, at the Mitre in Fleet-street, and afterwards at the Crown and Anchor tavern in the Strand. In 1784, Dr. Watson was chosen a fellow of the Royal-college of Physicians; and made one of the elects and, in 1786, he had the honour of knighthood conferred upon him; being one of the body deputed by the college to congratulate his majesty on his escape from assassination.

In general sir William Watson enjoyed a firm state of health. It was sometimes interrupted by fits of the gout; but these seldom confined him long to the house. In 1786, the decline of his health was very visible to his friends, and his strength was greatly diminished, together with much of that vivacity which so strongly marked his character. He died May 10, 1787.

Sir William Watson had a natural activity both of mind and body that never allowed him to be indolent in the slightest degree. He was a most exact oeconomist of his time, and throughout life a very early riser, being up usually in summer at six o‘clock, and frequently sooner; thus securing to himself daily two or three uninterrupted hours for study. In his younger days, these early hours were frequently given up to the purposes of simpling; but, in riper years, they were devoted to study. He read much and carefully; and his ardent and unremitting desire to be acquainted with the progress or’ all those sciences which were his objects, joined to a vigorous and retentive memory, enabled him to treasure up a vast stock of knowledge. What he thus acquired he freely dispensed. His mode of conveying information was clear, forcible, and energetic. His attention, however, was by no means confined to the subjects of his own profession, or those of philosophy at large. He was a careful observer of men, and of the manners of the age; and the extraordinary endowment of his memory had furnished him with a great variety of interesting and entertaining anecdotes concerning the characters and circumstances of his time. On all subjects, his liberal and communicative disposition, and his courteous behaviour, encouraged inquiry; and those who sought for information from him, seldom departed without it. In his epistolary correspondence he was copious and precise; and such as enjoyed the privilege and pleasure of it experienced in his punctuality another qualification which greatly | enhanced its value. It appears by the character his biographer has given of him, of which the preceding is a part, that he was not less estimable in private than in public life. 1


Pulteney’s Sketches. Thomson’s Hist, of the Royal Society.