Wollaston, William Hyde

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Wollaston, William Hyde (1766-1828): English Chemist.

Born to a famous scientific family, Wollaston quickly made his own mark, distinguishing himself in the fields of chemistry, optics, and physiology. After completing medical studies at Cambridge, he soon walked away from the profession and turned his attention to broader scientific pursuits. Along the way, he held a variety of administrative posts within the Royal Society and endowed the medal which still bears his name.

Forming a partnership with Smithson Tennant, Wollaston undertook the challenge which had stymied chemists for years--that of producing platinum in a malleable state. Wollaston's practice of working with the metal in extremely small quantities was not only the secret of his ultimate success but also allowed the ancillary discovery of the elements Palladium and Rhodium.

Another outgrowth of Wollaston's investigations into the chemical realm were his various optical devices. In 1809, he designed a reflective goniometer, a device employed in crystallography. Other instruments would follow. He is perhaps best remembered for the camera lucida, a drawing aid utilizing a quadrilateral glass prism. Related work with prisms resulted in his discovery of dark lines in the solar spectrum which would later be rediscovered and carefully mapped by Fraunhofer. His interest in optics also led Wollaston into investigations in physiology, particularly the mechanics of binocular vision.

Wollaston's enduring legacy lies not only within his own discoveries, but within those of the generations of scientists his work would come to inspire; both the mineral Wollastonite and Wollaston Island in Baffin Bay are named in his honor.

Further Reading:

J. R. Partington, A Short History of Chemistry, 1951.

Tom Call