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Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine

The Manchester Enlightenment

It is still possible, around King Street and St Ann's Square, to get the feel of Georgian Manchester. This was the 'better end' of town in the late eighteenth century, when polite society developed around the Assembly Rooms and the churches and chapels. It was a society of gentlefolk, but especially of merchants and professional men. Their economic base was the textile industry, and from the 1780s the town boomed as workshops proliferated and large factories were built along the rivers in the neighbouring countryside.

The Manchester Infirmary in Piccadilly was the main focus for established and incoming doctors. Its leading surgeon, Charles White, was an authority on midwifery and a noted teacher. Its leading physician, Thomas Percival, was a key member of the Unitarian Congregation at Cross Street Chapel (now an office site). With his minister there, and with his colleague Thomas Henry (the leading apothecary and manufacturing chemist), Percival established a scientific society which has continued to the present as the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society. He also helped establish here a College which gave higher education to laymen as well as to future Unitarian ministers. As Manchester's urban problems grew severe, as fever threatened, Percival and his colleagues addressed the problems of public health and fought for an expansion of the Infirmary to provide better facilities for infectious diseases. They had their successes, especially around 1790, but their projects were increasingly overtaken by the long years of war and repression which followed the French Revolution.

It was Percival and his friends who first advanced schemes for higher education for industrialists. They brought John Dalton to Manchester, as a teacher of chemistry and natural philosophy. It was here that the young Quaker asked himself why the atmosphere did not separate into the elements that it was now believed to contain; he reflected on the solubility of gases, which his friend Thomas Henry was forcing into mineral waters; he thought about chemical combination, and about explaining chemistry to the young. It is to this college teacher, befriended by industrialists and by enthusiasts for Newtonian science and rational amusement, that we owe the Atomic Theory in Chemistry. His book, A New System of Chemistry and Philosophy, was published in 1808. It was Dalton, as a scientific hero, who maintained the Literary and Philosophical Society through the difficult decades which opened the new century.

Forward: Science and the classic industrial city

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