Joseph Black Archive

Scope and Content

The archive contains five volumes of manuscript copies of chemistry lectures delivered by Joseph Black whilst Professor of Medicine and Chemistry at Edinburgh University. The first volume is inscribed 'Black's Chemistry vol. 5th', but no trace can be found of the other volumes in the series. The remaining volumes are numbered 1, 3, 4 and 5, and comprise an incomplete five volume set of chemistry lectures, with annotations, in various hands. The first volume in the set bears the inscription 'J Lyon'.

Administrative / Biographical History

Joseph Black was born in Bordeaux on April 16th 1728, the son of Belfast born wine merchant John Black and his Scottish wife. At twelve years old, Black was sent to grammar school in Belfast, from where he proceeded in 1746 to the University of Glasgow. He chose to study medicine, but became interested in chemistry under the tutorship of William Cullen. Cullen recognised Black's potential, and made him his assistant.

In 1751, Black left Glasgow for the University of Edinburgh in order to complete his medical studies. Whilst there, he undertook research into the affect of heat on magnesium carbonate, showing the existence of carbon dioxide as a gas separate from air. His resulting thesis, entitled Experiments upon Magnesia alba, Quicklime, and some other Alkaline Substances, was published in 1756.

It was in 1756 that Black was appointed as Cullen's successor to the chair of chemistry and anatomy at Glasgow University. He later exchanged this chair for that of medicine, a post for which he felt more qualified. It was at this point that he began his investigations into latent heat, announcing his theory in 1761. This work, along with his research on specific heats, formed the basis for modern thermal science.

1766 saw Black return to Edinburgh, becoming Professor of Medicine and Chemistry at the city's University. He cut back his work as a medical practitioner, restricting himself to treating a close circle of family and friends, and also abandoned his research work, in order to concentrate solely on teaching. His lectures drew increasingly large audiences, and he achieved great success as a tutor.

Black had always suffered due to poor health, and the 1790s saw a rapid deterioration in his well-being. In 1795 Charles Hope was appointed as his co-professor, so as to lighten the burden of his work. In 1797 he delivered his final lecture, and he died on November 10th 1799.

Access Information

The papers may be consulted through application by e-mail to: or by post to: Aberystwyth University, Archives, Information Services, Llandinam Building, Penglais, Aberystwyth, SY23 3DB. Tel: 01970 628593.

Acquisition Information

The lone volume was donated to the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, by George E J Powell. The provenance of the series of volumes is uncertain.


Description compiled by Rhian Phillips, Archive Hub project archivist, with reference to Dictionary of National Biography, vol. II, (London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1908), pp.571-74.

Other Finding Aids

Basic finding aid available on request from Archives staff.

Related Material

Joseph Black's lecture notes are also held by The Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine; The British Library; University College London; The Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh; The Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain; Liverpool University, Department of Special Collections and Archives; University of Wisconsin at Madison Library; University of Toronto Library; The Science Museum Library; The National Library of Scotland, and Manchester University's John Rylands Library.

Black's correpondence and papers are to be found at Edinburgh University Library; Birmingham City Archives; Huntington Library, and with The Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Some groups of papers and letters are also held privately.


Corporate Names