Boyle Lectures

Boyle Lectures

In his will Boyle established a series of lectures “intended to defend the Christian religion against those he considered ‘notorious infidels, namely atheists, deists, pagans, Jews and Muslims.”   The first lecture was given in 1692 by Richard Bentley [1662-1742], “A Confutation of Atheism.”  They continued annually with some gaps of up to 7 or 8 years until 1905.  The lectures resumed in 2004.  The series was supported by the rent of Boyle’s house at Crooked Lane and when the revenue from this rental was seen to be inadequate Bishop Tennison “procured a yearly stipend of £50 forever to be paid quarterly, charged on a farm in the parish of Brill Buckinghamshire” to ensure their continuance.

Boyle Medal

In 1899 the Royal Dublin Society inaugurated a scheme to award “a medal for scientific research of exceptional merit carried out in Ireland”  In the meeting establishing the award Professor John Jolly [1857-1933] read a statement providing the reason for “attaching to the medal the honoured name of Boyle” as reported in the Irish Times of Thursday 23rd March 1899.  He also read the report of the Science Committee of the Royal Dublin Society on the award of the Boyle medal” to Dr George Johnstone Stoney [1826-1911].  Stoney is best remembered for his introduction of the term “electron.”  Interestingly he worked for Lord Rosse and had a keen interest and involvement in astronomical studies.  His son Gerald was employed by Sir Charles Parsons in the works which had incorporated the business of Grubb.  It should also be noted that the 1912 award went to Sir Howard Grubb son of Thomas Grubb

Since 1999 the award “has been a joint venture between the Royal Dublin Society and the Irish Times” and is now awarded biennially to “a scientist based in Ireland and an Irish Scientist based abroad.”   The logic for the joint participation was recently set out in an article by that paper’s Science Editor, Dick Ahlstrom stating that the award helped in promoting a better public understanding of science which is “an ambition of both the RDS and the Irish Times (42).” There have been 36 awards to date.

(42) Ahlstrom, Dick Search for leading scientists: Boyle Medal; drawing on the past, looking to the future.” Irish Times Thursday 23rd October 2008


Empirical science was at the heart of Boyle’s thought and methodology.  His religious tolerance was exemplary in an era of horrific religious conflicts and while it was notably applied to other Protestant denominations it may possibly have extended to Catholicism.  He openly stated that everyone should “enjoy the liberty of worshipping God according to their own conscience (43).”   He did not engage in the “controversial polemics” of the day nor the rhetoric the accompanied it.
The scion of a titled family he steadfastly refused honours and titles. Described very unfairly as a “sententious little prig,” (44) he may have been a humourless and austere “puritan” as suggested by Burnet at the funeral service, but a zealot he most certainly was not.  His preoccupation with the development of his intellect and knowledge was not self-serving and the number of visitors to his home and the enormous number of his correspondents demonstrate how widespread and extensive his network of friends was.  Social niceties were certainly not his forte.

It was he who most fully executed the principles which Francis Bacon had so eloquently set out in “Novum Organum” and it was he who first used the term “chemical analysis” as it is understood today.  His Papers, as Michael Hunter has stated indicate that he was “perhaps the most influential scientists in the late seventeenth century.  His profuse extant manuscripts which total over 20,000 leaves constitute one of the most important archives to have come down to us from his period (45).”   Despite the scale of the archive virtually no major work was carried out on Boyle from the middle of the eighteenth to the early 20th Century.

While his reputation was extraordinarily high in his own time it has been negatively impacted subsequently by research which has displayed the contributions of others to the experiments and discoveries credited to Boyle.  This analysis is , I believe, based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the contribution of this remarkable man whose talent and methodology was fundamentally based on co-operative research, shared communication in either letters or publications and mutual critical assessment of the discoveries of all.

(43) Farrington, Thomas  A life of the Honble. Robert Boyle pg. 21
(44) Delany Paul British autobiography in the seventeenth Century U.K.: Routledge & Keegan Paul, 1969 198p. pg. 153
(45) Hunter, Michael.  The Boyle Papers: Understanding the manuscripts of Robert Boyle.  U.K.: Ashgate, 2007  xiii,674p pg.

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