Helsham, Richard

Richard Helsham (1682-1737) was born just outside Kilkenny in 1682 or 1683. He was educated in Kilkenny College, entering Trinity College in 1698 and winning a scholarship in 1700 and gaining his degree in 1702. In1704 he became a Fellow of the University of Dublin. After his MA in 1705 he decided to pursue a medical degree, becoming a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in Ireland (RCPI) in 1710. Trinity determined at this time to set up a medical laboratory and a medical course that also importantly institutionalised the teaching of science in the university the first time. Helsham’s first formal appointment in the University of Dublin was the Donegal Lectureship in Mathematics which he held from 1722-1730.

The University of Dublin’s curriculum during Helsham’s time as an undergraduate was in transition away from Laudian statutes and its basically scholastic course. The revolutionary events of the so called ‘Glorious Revolution’ at the end of the old century had brought to power a government headed by William Molyneux, founded of the Dublin Philosophical Society (hereafter the DPS) in 1683 and an enthusiast for the so-called ‘New Philosophy’. The university had at this time in its ranks George Berkeley, developing hi criticism of Newton’s philosophy and also Samuel Molyneux who tried to re-establish the DPS in 1706. This had been disbanded when the Earl of Tyrconnel and his Jacobite army occupied the college in 1687. Helsham was obviously introduced in his studies to the works of Descartes, Gassendi, Malebranche and Locke and other contemporary philosophers that had been included during a slow Whig reform of the curriculum.

William Molyneux had written a book Dioptera Nuva, A treatise of dioptricks in two parts, wherein the various effects and appearances of spherick glasses, both convex and concave, single and combined, in telescopes and microscopes, together with their usefulness in many concerns of humane life, are explained, published in London in 1792, that was perhaps of the greatest influence on Helsham as an undergraduate. He studied in a period of the greatest intellectual tumult associated with the rise of Newtonianism. Molyneux had indeed attempted to get a simple explanation of Newton’s ‘Principia’ (1687) written, which was finally produced by Helsham. Newton’s revolutionary ‘cause and effect’ philosophy was percolating into the thinking society and the university which was soon to be seen as an essential component of Whig ideology. Helsham, despite being a Tory, was clearly an ardent student of Newton’s works and played an important role in the opening in 1710 of the new Trinity laboratory established for the new medical school. On that auspicious day, the professor of physic, Thomas Molyneux (brother of William) spoke of medical matters, while Helsham lectured on natural philosophy.

In 1714 Helsham became the personal physician to Jonathon Swift when he returned to Ireland and two years later became President of the RCPI, a post he held for nine years. Swift, Patrick Delaney, the first Professor of Oratory and History, with Helsham formed a Tory opposition to Richard Baldwin who was the ultra-Whig Provost of Trinity. These men developed a pamphlet was with Baldwin that was definitely resolved when Delaney was forced to resign his Trinity fellowship. During these years of opposition Helsham nevertheless lectured to Trinity students on Descartes’ and Newton’s natural philosophy and built up a series of impressive lecture notes. His lectures were attended by both Trinity and the RCPI medical students. He gave these classes for thirteen years without payment, being eventually rewarded by both the RCSI with a gold medal and by Trinity by an appointment to the first chair in science when the university established the Erasmus Smith Professorship of Natural and Experimental Philosophy. Helsham had to resign his fellowship in 1729/30 on his marriage to Jane Putland.

He successfully advised Dublin City with the design of the waterworks including mechanics for ‘pipewater’. He was voted the Freedom of the City of Dublin for this work. This episode underlines just how important Newton’s mechanics was at this time in that Helsham, the exemplar of Newtonianism, was employed in this civil engineering project. Furthermore, the last section of Helsham’s book included work that represented new research on fluid flow over obstacles, through pipes and orifices, obviously the result of this work on this contract. 

Biographical details reveal that Helsham was obviously ill for some time before his death as it is recorded he took quicksilver to try and diagnose his ailment. He left orders in his will for an autopsy to be conducted, with his body to be dissected with a view of finding the cause of death. This revealed a twisted gut and some excresences. His great friend and pupil Bryan Robinson was left to prepare Helsham’s lecture notes for publication during 1738. This would eventually go to eight editions with the last edition appearing in 1834. McMillan [1] sought copies of this book for many years in all the leading libraries in Ireland and UK without success and eventually found a 1767 Fourth Edition in Green’s Bookshop in Dublin that he donated to the Physics Department in Trinity. Because Helsham’s book was viewed by libraries as a ‘students textbook’ it was not considered a worthy addition to their book-stock. 

Educational researchers into the history of physics reveal clearly the importance of Helsham’s book, which was one of the first published by the Dublin University Press. This book appears to be the first physics book published in the vernacular and was published in 1739 under the title ‘lectures on natural philosophy’ [2]. The Institute of Physics in London reprinted from this sole extant copy perhaps in the whole of Ireland as part of its millennium activities. The forward to the IOP edition suggests that the success of the book was because it made understandable Newton’s difficult mathematical books and was written for undergraduates and thus ‘was a perfect compliment to a liberal education’. Helsham minimizes in his presentations of Newton’s work theories and hypotheses falling back to the well-worn Baconian position of the primacy of experiment. This made it perfect for promoting Newtonianism as it avoided contentious issues highlighted in the work of Berkeley and Robinson. Helsham  simply states as a fact that there are active and passive principles (attractive and repulsive active principles and inertia passive). He is clearly a Newtonian rather than a follower of Descartes who saw matter as entirely passive and homogeneous interacting via mechanical collision. . A contribution made by Helsham’s book to the foundation of Trinity’s significant textbook tradition was not touched on in the foreword of the IOP edition.

Helsham’s book certainly launched what was to be a major educational development in Trinity which became the first university to take non-residential students and thereby the prototype ‘examining university’. This lucrative tradition was transferred in 1827 to London when Lardner was appointed to bring from Dublin both the examining textbook traditions that was a model appropriate for mass education as opposed to that of Oxbridge. Finally, the book with its innovations of fluid flow and optics helped advance two areas of study that became national research traditions in the following centuries. Helsham is, however, with Robinson who wrote an important textbook, the founders of the great Trinity textbook tradition.


1         McMillan, N,D,. (1988) British physics, the Irish role in the origin, the differentiation and organisation of a profession, Phys. Educ. 23, 272-278.

2         Helsham, R, (2000) Lectures on Natural Philosophy, Bristol, IOPP.

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