Guthrie, Frederick

(1833-1886), chemist and physicist

by Graeme J. N. Gooday

© Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved

Guthrie, Frederick (1833-1886), chemist and physicist, was born on 15 October 1833 in Bayswater, London, youngest of the six children of Alexander Guthrie, a tailor. Francis Guthrie, who distinguished himself as a mathematician in South Africa, was an older brother. Guthrie's early interest in chemistry was stimulated by Henry Watts, his private tutor until he enrolled at University College School, London, in 1845. Four years later Guthrie matriculated at University College where he learned mathematics from Augustus De Morgan and made a special study of chemistry in the laboratories of Professor Williamson. Before his graduation in 1855, Guthrie followed the pattern of many British chemists in pursuing a doctorate in the Germanic states. After a spell with Bunsen at the University of Heidelberg, he investigated organic salts and acids with Kolbe at the University of Marburg, attaining his PhD summa cum laude in 1855. Parts of his thesis were published in Liebig's Annalen and in other international journals. These included Guthrie's findings on what later gained notoriety as mustard gas, and his more felicitous proposals on the therapeutic applications of amyl nitrite.

After returning to Britain, Guthrie accepted consecutive appointments as assistant in the laboratories of three distinguished chemistry professors: from 1856 he worked at Owens College, Manchester, with Edward Frankland, and then with his successor, Henry Roscoe, before taking up a post under Lyon Playfair at the University of Edinburgh in 1859. In that year his reputation in organic chemistry won Guthrie a fellowship of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and a lectureship in chemistry and physics at the Royal College, Mauritius, which he commenced in May 1861; later that year, on 10 December, he and his wife, Agnes (née Bickell), had a son, Frederick Bickell Guthrie [see below]. One of Guthrie's colleagues in Mauritius was the novelist and writer Walter Besant, with whom Guthrie formed a lifelong friendship; indeed it was probably Besant's influence that led Guthrie, while in Mauritius, to express poetic ambitions in 'The Jew', published in 1863 under the pseudonym Frederick Cerny.

At this sparsely equipped outpost of the British empire Guthrie turned his chemical expertise to subjects immediately to hand such as the island's river-waters and its principal agricultural produce, sugar-cane. With similar resourcefulness he undertook an empirical investigation of fluid drops and bubbles in 1864-5, the results of which were published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society. However, as with many of his subsequent publications in physics, his non-mathematical conclusions were couched in his own idiosyncratic terminology. Two years later, in June 1867, both Besant and Guthrie left their posts after a major confrontation with the rector and at the height of a devastating fever epidemic.

On his return to London, Guthrie worked with John Tyndall (1820-1893) on the thermal resistance of liquids, the collaboration resulting in his sole publication in the Royal Society's Philosophical Transactions. After his six years of relative isolation from Europe, his more strictly chemical work was not so well received, however.'Very bad' was the verdict of Herbert McLeod on a paper presented by Guthrie at the Chemical Society on 16 April 1868 (McLeod), and reviews of his chemistry textbooks were not always kinder. Guthrie's often precarious financial position improved somewhat in 1869 when, partly on Tyndall's recommendation, he took over Tyndall's lectureship in physics at the Department of Science and Art's School of Mines in Jermyn Street.

In this post Guthrie not only taught mining students, but shared with Thomas Henry Huxley the new task of giving summer practical courses to the schoolteachers from the Department of Science and Art. Both soon campaigned for working space to extend these classes into a full academic year, and upon removal in 1871-2 to the Science Schools (renamed the Normal School of Science in 1881) in South Kensington, Guthrie acquired a ground-floor suite of laboratories on Exhibition Road. Elevated to a professorship, Guthrie worked on an intensive yet frugal scheme to equip the department's teachers with the skills and apparatus to give practical instruction in physics. With the financial support of the department and the collaboration of London colleagues G. Carey Foster and William Barrett, and the later assistance of C. V. Boys, Guthrie's scheme enabled hundreds of teachers to give school demonstrations on light, heat, electricity, and magnetism. Gradually this programme transformed the papers of the 100,000 or so Department of Science and Art candidates in physics that Guthrie examined. His associated textbook Magnetism and Electricity (1873; 2nd edn, 1884) sold over 10,000 copies. In 1895, after his death, his 1877 text Practical Physics was translated into Japanese (rendered as Simple experiments in teaching physics, and some of his apparatus incorporated into Japanese classrooms.

Much scepticism had initially greeted Guthrie's Department of Science and Art-sponsored radical plan: 'Many told me that it could not succeed, many that it ought not to succeed' (Guthrie, 663). Given that it did succeed for many of his students, it is unfortunate that the most often cited source on Guthrie's instruction is the hostile testimony in H. G. Wells's autobiography. However, a few months after narrowly passing his last course in 1886, it was almost certainly Wells, as editor of Science Schools Journal, who described Guthrie as 'deservedly a favourite with all who have passed under his instruction' (Wells, 'Guthrie', 3). Guthrie's more distinguished scientific protégés Oliver Lodge, Silvanus Phillips Thompson, and John Ambrose Fleming certainly showed warm respect for 'old daddy', as they jokingly called him in the mid-1870s.

The successful launch of the Physical Society of London in March 1874 owed much to Guthrie's support among teachers of physics in English schools and colleges--especially in London. His reasons for founding it stemmed from his frustration at the Royal Society's publication of several innovative papers as abstracts in the society's Proceedings rather than in full in its more prestigious Transactions. It even took more than a year for Guthrie's account of 'approach caused by vibration' (1870) to appear in the Proceedings. He was none the less elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1871 after Sir William Thomson took a keen interest in applying this paper's insights to his vortex model of the atom. In 1873, however, the Royal Society's referees were unconvinced by Guthrie's claims regarding a novel electrostatic phenomenon in hot metals, although this was subsequently interpreted by J. A. Fleming as the first observation of thermionic emission.

In the summer of 1873 Guthrie canvassed support for a new society to discuss 'incomplete' physical researches that could not find an audience among existing scientific institutions. From the first gathering in March 1874, Guthrie acted as demonstrator for the experimental illustrations that were a central feature of the Physical Society's fortnightly meetings. Many, if not all, papers were primarily about experimental matters: Alexander Graham Bell, for example, gave the London début of the telephone at a society meeting in 1877. Papers often related to lecture demonstration apparatus, reflecting the predominant presence of teachers in the society's membership. The Proceedings of the Physical Society were also a vehicle for Guthrie's own researches on eutectics and cryohydrates. Despite James Clerk Maxwell's refusal to join, almost every major physicist in England was a member of the society by the time of Guthrie's tenure as president in 1884-6.

Guthrie's wife, Agnes, predeceased him, as did two subsequent wives of whom nothing is known. Then, on 10 April 1882, he married Blanche Gertrude (b. 1861/2), daughter of Thomas Reynolds, professor of music. A genial, humorous, if eccentric character at the heart of London's physics community, Guthrie died from throat cancer four years later, on 21 October 1886. He was buried at Kensal Green cemetery on 26 October. The loyalty and affection which Guthrie inspired in his friends is palpable in the efforts to which Huxley and others went to secure a state pension for his widow and younger children.

Frederick Bickell Guthrie (1861-1927), agricultural chemist, was born on 10 December 1861 in Mauritius, the son of Frederick Guthrie and Agnes Bickell. He was educated at University College, London, and after receiving his PhD from the University of Marburg in 1882, he was successively demonstrator in chemistry at Queen's College, Cork (1882-88), the Royal College of Science, London (1888-90), and the University of Sydney (1890-91). On 15 November 1890 he married Ada Adams at Neutral Bay. The couple had two sons (both killed in the First World War) and a daughter.

Guthrie's main scientific research in Australia was undertaken as a chemist to the department of agriculture (1892-1924) where he collaboratively developed methods of analysing wheat flour and important new techniques in cross-breeding wheats to produce robust strains with good baking qualities. Author or co-author of 180 papers, he was, from 1903 to 1904, president of the Royal Society of New South Wales. He died at Moss Vale, New South Wales, on 7 February 1927. His name is commemorated in the Guthrie medal, awarded every three years by the Royal Australian Chemical Institute.


G. C. Foster, 'Frederick Guthrie', Nature, 35 (1886-7), 8-10
G. C. Foster, Proceedings of the Physical Society, 8 (1886-7), 9-13
[H. G. Wells], 'The late Professor Guthrie', Science Schools Journal, 1 (1886), 3-4
O. Lodge, Past years: an autobiography (1931)
J. A. Fleming, Memories of a scientific life (1934)
F. Guthrie, 'Cantor lectures [1-3]', Journal of the Society of Arts, 34 (1885-6), 629-41, 647-50, 659-63
W. Besant, Autobiography of Sir Walter Besant (1902)
H. G. Wells, Experiment in autobiography, 1 (1934)
W. H. Brock and TeraKawa, 'The introduction of heurism into Japan', History of Education, 7 (1978), 35-44
H. McLeod, 'Diary', Royal Institution of Great Britain, London
'Guthrie, Frederick Bickell', AusDB, vol. 9
CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1886)

ICL, archives, Huxley MSS, corresp. with Blanche Guthrie
ICL, archives
RS, items concerning referees' reports for the Royal Society journals

White of Littlehampton, photograph, repro. in T. Chambers, ed., Register of associates, Royal College of Chemistry, Royal School of Mines (1896), facing p. civ
portrait (after photograph by White), ICL
wood-engraving, NPG; repro. in ILN (13 Nov 1886)

Wealth at death  
£461 13s. 2d.: administration, 29 Nov 1886, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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