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M. B. Synge

An Age of Science

Amid all the glorious achievements of Queen Victoria's reign, the wonderful discoveries in science must ever claim a foremost place. Thrilling indeed are the stories of this scientific age, breathless the rapidity with which one after another burst upon the public mind, changing old-world customs, transforming time-worn ideas, and revolutionizing the thought of centuries.

The name of Herschel calls up the vision of a man who, during the nineteenth century, devoted his life to the study of the heavens. The very year of the Queen's accession, Sir John Herschel, with his great telescope at the Cape, was sweeping the heavens for stars and planets; and his Handbook, published in 1838, told the grand story of a solar system travelling through endless space. Among his other achievements he had named some 250 minor planets, and classified 5,000 clusters of little stars.


Sir John Herschel.

While developments were taking place in the telescope and spectroscope, the discovery of photography brought these observations into the realm of fact. By means of this new art the heavens could be photographed, and true pictures of the relative sizes of sun, moon, and stars were presented to the world at large.

The discoveries of Professor Tyndall on the subject of radiant heat became known in 1863, when one of the foremost men of science, Sir William Thomson (afterwards Lord Kelvin), was using his experiments in electricity for practical ends.


Professor Tyndall.

One December night in 1858 the first electric light flashed over the troubled waters from the South Foreland lighthouse, though private houses were not lit with it till 1878. By this time the great work of Lord Kelvin's life was done, and he had been the means of laying the deep submarine cable, first from Dover to Calais in 1851, then from Ireland to Newfoundland in 1866, until every foreign country and every colony were in communication one with another.

New discoveries in plant life by Sir William Hooker and other botanists led to the re-establishment of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew: they were the very first gardens of their kind in the whole world.


Lord Kelvin.

A closer study of plant and animal life led Charles Darwin to the new theories which he gave to the world in 1859 on The Origin of Species. His book gave rise to much discussion, but when in 1871 it was followed by The Descent of Man, which suggested that human beings and apes were descended from a common origin, a very storm of abuse burst forth. But though so fiercely attacked, the book had an extraordinary influence on literature, science, art, and religion during the latter half of the century.

Perhaps such a revolution in thought was only equaled by the changes that took place in the world of medicine and surgery.


Charles Darwin.

At the Queen's accession both these branches of science were somewhat stationary, until the introduction of ether and chloroform into Britain in 1848 robbed surgery of half its terrors. Up to this time very few operations could be attempted; the wretched patient had to see all the preparations, and to feel all the pain. Many died merely from shock, others from surgical fever; only the strongest survived. Under chloroform it was found that operations could be performed slowly and painlessly, and many hundreds of lives were saved by this means.

Towards the end of this age, surgery was further helped by the wonderful discovery of the X or Röntgen rays, by which means the exact location of a bullet or foreign substance imbedded in the flesh could be detected.

Sir Joseph Lister—a name famous in the annals of Victorian medicine—found a means whereby greater care and cleanliness in surgery saved many a case that had hitherto succumbed to blood-poisoning after operation.


A Rontgen ray photograph of a lady's hand.

There is no time to tell of other discoveries which prolonged life and alleviated suffering—of the prevention of small-pox by vaccination, of the new treatment of consumption by light and air, of the diminution of typhus and cholera by means of improved sanitation, of the isolation of infectious complaints, such as measles, scarlet fever, chicken-pox, &c.

At the beginning of the Victorian era the State took no interest in the public health: water supplies were bad, dust-heaps lay in the streets, there were no public baths, and the death-rate was very high. The establishment of a Board of Health enforced a better state or things, and a higher degree of human cleanliness had a grand effect on the health of the community.

The telephone, wireless telegraphy, and motors were all in their infancy when Queen Victoria died, so they will not be touched on here.


Sir Joseoph Lister.

Throughout the reign of Victoria the field of science was full of eager workers—all toiling in the great cause of humanity. The work was slow and laborious: it needed patience, knowledge, and love. Some died without seeing the result of their toil; others lived to understand the unspoken gratitude of thousands of their fellows. Britain has given to the world some of the greatest discoveries of the century.