William Gregory (1803-1858)

by W. P. Doyle

William Gregory was born on 25 December 1803 in Edinburgh. He was the fourth son of James Gregory, Professor of Physic in Edinburgh, formulator of "Gregory's Powder" a mixture of rhubarb rhizome, ginger, and magnesium carbonate, which was for over a century and a half one of the most prescribed medicines in the Pharmacopoeia.1 William was the sixteenth of a remarkable academic dynasty, descended from John Gregorie, Minister of Drumoak, Aberdeenshire,2 to occupy a professorial chair.1 He entered the University of Edinburgh in 1821 and by 1826 had attended all the compulsory courses of the medical curriculum after which his name does not appear in the Matriculation Register but he graduated M.D. in 1828, his graduation thesis being entitled "De Principiis Vegetabilium Alkalinis". The two-year gap may be due to his suffering in 1826 an attack of fever which resulted in any unusual exertion causing severe pain and swelling in one of his legs and he was, especially in later years, condemned to an almost sedentary life;3 he bore his affliction with humour writing in 1849 when prostrate -"... to speak heraldically, I must at present be 'couchant' and dare not try to be either 'rampant or passant' ..." .

He had no intention of practicing as a physician because he had decided on his career after attending the chemistry lectures of Thomas Charles Hope, Professor of Chemistry at Edinburgh from 1795-1843. Hope illustrated his lectures extensively by large-scale demonstrations that so impressed Gregory that he repeated several of them using crude apparatus which he had made. From that time he is said to have kept steadily before him the ambition to occupy the Edinburgh Chair of Chemistry.3

After graduation he went to study chemistry at Giessen in Germany under the great chemist, Justus Liebig; the laboratory at Giessen was almost the first in Germany where practical instruction in chemistry was systematically given and in the second quarter of the nineteenth century was famous throughout the world attracting many students who subsequently made important contributions to chemistry.  Gregory and Liebig became good friends and the impression that Liebig created made Gregory his life-long supporter and the champion of his views. In Giessen he assisted Liebig in several of his courses of experiments and later at Liebig's request he translated and edited in Britain many of Liebig's publications on organic, agricultural and physiological chemistry and thus played an important part in the development in Britain of these aspects of chemistry.

Gregory returned to Britain in 1828 and for a year was assistant to Professor Edward Turner at the then University of London (now University College, London).  In 1829 he returned to Scotland and for the next seven years was an extra-academical lecturer on chemistry in Edinburgh. He gave a wide variety of courses, a full course of lectures, a course of practical chemistry "including the use of the Blow Pipe and Tube Apparatus", chemical analysis for advanced pupils, "a Course of Lectures on the CHEMISTRY of ORGANIC BODIES, including the application of CHEMISTRY, to the PHYSIOLOGY of PLANTS and ANIMALS", and "a Class, limited to Six,for the particular study of the Proximate and ultimate Analysis of Organic Substances".4 He also gave courses of popular lectures and the "Scotsman" of 18 December 1833 reported as follows -

Dr GREGORY'S LECTURES. -On Saturday we attended Dr Gregory's opening lecture on Chemistry, in Gibb's Royal Saloon, and were gratified to perceive that it attracted such a crowded and fashionable audience.  The Doctor explained the properties of matter, and the nature and objects of Chemistry, in a philosophical, yet clear and intelligible manner, and was listened to with much attention. The experiments were pleasing and successful.

In the Library of Aberdeen University there is a manuscript volume entitled "Account of Expenses for Apparatus etc. incurred in setting up as a Teacher of Chemistry by Dr William Gregory beginning Martinmas 1829 Edinburgh".

In 1836-7 he lectured at the Park Street School of Medicine in Dublin. In 1837 he succeeded Thomas Graham at the Andersonian College in Glasgow and in 1839 he was appointed Professor of Medicine at King's College, Aberdeen. When he was appointed, chemistry was being taught by Patrick Forbes, a classicist who taught both Latin and Chemistry, and Gregory therefore, chose to lecture during the winter session, 1839-40, on materia medica, and to conduct a course in practical chemistry in the summer of 1840.2 In 1839 King's College which had previously taught medicine jointly with Marischal College decided to found an independent medical school and Gregory played an important part in its organisation.2 In October 1840 the Senatus transferred the teaching of chemistry to the Professor of Medicine who was "appointed to teach the class of Chemistry for five days in the week and throughout six months during the ensuing session" .2 At Aberdeen chemistry was a compulsory subject for the degree of M.A. and during the period 1840-44 the average attendance at Gregory's chemistry class was about 44 Arts students and 10 medical students.2

In 1843 shortly before the start of the session Hope resigned his Chair at Edinburgh;  as a stop-gap measure Thomas Traill, Professor of Medical Jurisprudence, gave the chemistry course in the 1843-4 session during which the candidates for the Chair, of whom Gregory was one, began to gather. It was the first time that there had been an open contest for the Chair at Edinburgh; of the former holders of the chair both James Crawford and Andrew Plummer had petitioned the Town Council for appointment, William Cullen had been appointed through the influence of the 3rd Duke of Argyll, Joseph Black had been brought in by Principal William Robertson, and Thomas Charles Hope by negotiation between Black and the Town Council. Because it was open and because there was plenty of time before the appointment need be made the 1844 contest for the Edinburgh Chair of Chemistry was very interesting but in this brief biography can be only outlined. There were nine candidates including three who held University posts, Gregory at Aberdeen, Arthur Connell at St. Andrews, James Johnston at Durham, and Lyon Playfair Professor at the Royal Institution, Manchester. The appointment was in the hands of the Town Council and the result was influenced by three main factors: (a) the testimonials submitted by the candidates from prominent chemists, influential persons, and students who had attended the candidates' lectures; Gregory, for example, submitted 35 testimonials; (b) the opinion held by the Edinburgh professors of the candidates; Playfair, for example, recorded -"Though I was too young a man to aspire to such a valuable chair, I was encouraged to become a candidate by some of the leading Professors ..."; (c) the impression made by the candidate when he "waited upon" the individual Councillors. "After a hard contest, and a good deal of bitterness between our supporters" (Playfair) the choice lay between Gregory and Andrew Fyfe, an extra-academical lecturer in Edinburgh. The Council voted on 14 May 1844 and Gregory was elected receiving 20 votes to 13 for Fyfe.

Two points from Gregory's commission are of interest. Firstly he was appointed as "Professor of Chemistry only" in contrast to his predecessors who were nominally Professors of Medicine and Chemistry although in fact they all taught primarily chemistry and took little part in the teaching of medicine. Secondly because Hope had paid little attention to the teaching of practical chemistry Gregory's commission stated "that he shall not only give regular courses of Lectures ...but shall also teach the said Science of Chemistry practically to the Students attending him therein". In the event, this second condition did not succeed in improving the teaching of practical chemistry; Gregory held that the teaching of practical chemistry necessitated external financial support5 and in 1845 the Senatus addressed a Memorial to Her Majesty's Government requesting a Grant in aid of the School of Chemistry. No Government money was forthcoming and about the only further official reference to practical chemistry is that the Town Council on 28 February 1854 on application from Gregory agreed to provide a retiring room in connection with the Practical Chemistry Classroom. Thus the teaching of practical chemistry at Edinburgh did not improve until the appointment in 1858 of Lyon Playfair who funded the equipping and running of a laboratory very largely from his professorial income.

As a lecturer Gregory was simple, clear, precise, and had a talent for collecting and condensing what was of real scientific importance; his memory was so good that he lectured without notes. Rather more than half his course was devoted to organic chemistry then rapidly developing through the influence in the second quarter of the nineteenth century of Liebig at Giessen, Wohler at Gottingen, and Bunsen at Marburg. Gregory kept himself completely up to date, which was possible by his familiarity with German and French, and this coupled with his judicious assessment of what was really important made him valuable as an author. His class textbook was his "Outlines of Chemistry" published in 1845 - which went through several editions - and which while it contains much information in a comparatively small space is very simply arranged and clearly written.

As a scientist, he was competent, though not distinguished. When he applied for the Edinburgh Chair he had 22 published papers and at the end of his career 53 which are given in the Royal Society's Catalogue of Scientific Papers.6

Gregory's first research was his greatest contribution to posterity. At that period the medical profession was strenuously tackling the problem of pain, the mainstay of analgesics being opium taken as laudanum. With the advance of organic chemistry chemists had begun to isolate the active principles of drugs and by 1816 morphine was available as the acetate and came into use in medicine about 1823 but it was very expensive and always contaminated with narcotine.1 Gregory worked on the problem and in 1831 published a process for isolating morphine hydrochloride in a high state of purity and at a cost no greater than that of an equivalent dose of laudanum. An Edinburgh pharmaceutical firm, John Macfarlan and his partner Rennie Brown, had an established trade in laudanum and was thus in a strategic position to follow up Gregory's paper as soon as it was published. Work on the manufacture of morphine hydrochloride began in 1832 and the salt was commercially available in 18337 and was included in the Edinburgh Pharmacopoeia of 1839. Another Edinburgh firm T. and H. Smith commenced the manufacture of opium alkaloids in 1837. At the time morphine was administered orally and because of the similar costs it showed little advantage over laudanum. The fundamental importance of Gregory's work did not become clear until 1855 when Alexander Wood introduced hypodermic injection into general practice1 and the future of pure morphine salts, which were essential to the technique, was secured. A great demand for opium alkaloids grew up and the production of them by the two Edinburgh companies reached very high levels in the second half of the nineteenth century and alkaloid manufacture is still the principal activity of Macfarlan Smith Ltd., formed by the combination of the two original companies.7 Other significant work by Gregory included a purification of chloroform, the discovery of nitrogen sulphide, work on meconic acid, methyl mercaptan and the derivatives of uric acid, the preparation of potassium permanganate, and the distillation of rubber, in which he must have discovered isoprene. He also contributed to practical science improved processes for the preparation of hydrochloric acid and silver oxide. He was certainly respected by his contemporaries. Commenting on the papers in Parts 5 and 6 of Volume 2 of the Proceedings of the Chemical Society the President, Arthur Aikin, refers to the importance of the paper by that "accomplished chemist", Dr Gregory.  In later life due to the trouble with his legs he could do no research which involved standing. Consequently he turned to microscopy and studied the Diatoms, on which he wrote a number of careful papers.

As a man, Gregory was sincere, unselfish and generous. He was remarkable for his coolness and self-possession. On one occasion, while he was lecturing, a tube of chlorine dioxide burst in his hand and although a fragment of glass entered his eye he finished his lecture. He devoted much time to studying languages and to music.  He was a man of wide intellectual interests and was one of the founders of the Aberdeen Philosophical Society and its first secretary.2 He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1832 and acted as one of the two secretaries to the ordinary meetings from 1844 till his death. In 1830 Gregory married Lisette Scott and they had one son named James Liebig Gregory.2

Gregory was deeply interested in phrenology, hypnotism, spiritualism, and occult phenomena generally and contributed papers to the "Phrenological Journal" and wrote a book on hypnotism, "letters to a Candid Enquirer on Animal Magnetism". In this book Gregory drew conclusions not supported by experiment and he developed a theory concerning the "higher phenomena" which his critics described as dabbling in the occult. These activities met with his colleagues' disapproval as exemplified by Robert Christison, Professor of Materia Medica, who wrote -"Dr  Bennett gave an admirable lecture upon the rational view to be taken of ..: mesmerism ...; and in the course of it he pounded satisfactorily Dr Gregory, who always sits in the front seat of every concert, opera, lecture, or public spectacle, but found his favourite position a very hot and uneasy one for once in his life I was not present, thinking it a shame to encourage in any shape the Professor of Chemistry in making a donkey of himself and a laughing stock of the University".8 Of his domestic life in a letter to George Combe of 6 July 1840 Gregory writes -

You will be glad to hear that my choice of a wife, which was not made without Phrenology, has been a very fortunate one ...We have a very fine little boy, whom we both intend to have a fair chance, as far as we can secure it, of having his faculties properly, that is, phrenologically, cultivated I can say with truth that I enjoy the most perfect domestic happiness, and am more and more satisfied that when people are unhappy in the married state, the cause lies in an unphrenological choice...

Gregory died on 24 April 1858 at the age of 54 after a long and painful illness, "leaving behind him to practical science, his discoveries; to its literature, his writings; and to his friends - and they are many - the memory of a man whose professional accomplishments were rendered more valuable by the modest graces of his private character".9 He was honoured with a remarkable display of civic affection in the shape of a public funeral and was buried in the family vault in the Canongate Churchyard.


  1. Green, G.C., Nature 157,465-469 (1946).
  2. Findlay, A., pp. 49-57 in The Teaching of Chemistry in the Universities of Aberdeen (University Press, Aberdeen, 1935).
  3. Alison, W.P., Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 4 ,121-2 (1862).
  4. Scotsman: 25 Sept. 1830; 4 Feb. 1832; 4 Feb. 1832; 21 Apr. 1832; 24 Jan. 1835.
  5. Gregory, W., On the State of the Schools of Chemistry in the United Kingdom (Taylor and Walton, London, 1842).
  6. Royal Society Catalogue of Scientific Papers (1800-1863), 3,8-10 (1869).
  7. Bolton, D., Chemistry and Industry 701-708 (1976).
  8. The Life of Sir Robert Christison, edited by his sons, (Blackwood, Edinburgh and London, 1886) 2, 329-30.
  9. Journal of the Chemical Society II 12, 175 (1859-60).