Kirwan, Richard

Richard Kirwan (1733-1812)


Richard Kirwan was born in Cloughballymore in Co. Galway in 1733. He received his early education in Ireland and completed it in Poitiers in France. He entered the noviciate of the Jesuits in Paris in 1754. Following the death of his brother he returned to Ireland in 1755 and lived at Menlough Castle where he set up a laboratory and built up a library.

Richard Kirwan was called to the Irish Bar in 1766, where he practised for 2 years. He spent 13 years in London between 1769 and 1787 and while there his home was a meeting place for important scientists of the day.

Kirwan’s return to Ireland in 1787 saw him continuing his intellectual pursuits. He made many important contributions to chemistry, meteorology, mining and bleaching. His publications include Elements of Mineralogy (1784), the first systematic book on the subject which was translated into German, French and Spanish. An Essay on the Analysis of Mineral Waters (1799) details qualitative and quantitative analysis of the period. Kirwan was the first person to describe and carry out a titration to determine iron (II) using potassium hexacyanoferrate. He also published numerous papers on chemistry, many of which were translated in European Journals.

Phlogiston was a theory proposed in the eighteenth century to explain the process of combustion of metals and organic material. Phlogiston was given up in the process of burning. Returning the lost phlogiston restored the metal. Phlogiston was regarded as ‘minus oxygen’ and Kirwan argued that phlogiston was inflammable air (hydrogen).The Essay on Phlogiston and the Constitution of Acids (1787) was a defence of the phlogiston theory which was supported by the English chemists, including Priestly, but not by the French chemists. This essay was translated into French by Lavoisier’s wife, Marie-Anne. Kirwan was subjected to anti-phlogistic commentary by Lavoisier and by 1791 he had abandoned the cause of phlogiston. However, the phlogiston theory was still appearing in textbooks in the early nineteenth century, for example, in Thomson’s Chemistry in 1802.

 Kirwan was one of the founder members of the Royal Irish Academy in 1785 and became its second President in 1799, a post he held until his death. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1780 and a Copley Medal winner in 1782 for his work on chemical affinity. In 1794 he was a Gold Medal winner of the Royal Dublin Society for acquiring a collection of minerals called the Leskean Cabinet (now in the National Museum). The RDS collection of scientific instruments includes some of Kirwan’s equipment, including his large double-lens burning glass, and his portrait is in the RDS council room. He was a honorary member of many Academies throughout Europe and the USA.

He died in Dublin in 1812 as a result of a cold. In his day he was well regarded by his peers and was at the forefront of many scientific disciplines and his philosophical writings have yet to be evaluated.


Mollan, C. (ed.) et al. 2002. Irish Innovators in Science and Technology, Dublin, Royal Irish Academy.

Mollan, Charles. 2007. It’s Part of What We Are, Vol. 1, pp. 157-186, Dublin, Royal Dublin Society.

Thomson, T 1802, Chemistry, Vol. 1. Edinburgh.

Thorburn Burns, D. 2003. Richard Kirwan, 1733-1812: The Philosopher of Dublin, Dublin, Royal Irish Academy.

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