The Natural History of Robert Boyle

Michael Bycroft reviews Michael Hunter’s biography of Robert Boyle.

By Michael Bycroft | November 5, 2010
Engraving of Robert Boyle, by John Faber Jr.

Engraving of Robert Boyle, by John Faber Jr.

Science History Institute

Michael Hunter. Robert Boyle: Between God and Science. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009. 400 pp. $55.

Robert Boyle has been treated to a new biography—the first in forty years and the fifth in the three centuries since he died. Detailed, yet unembellished, this account of Boyle’s life and work is based on the patient collection of data from a wide range of sources. Moreover, it succeeds in organizing available facts into a coherent account, a success that Boyle often failed to achieve in his own work. As the book details, we now know more than ever about Boyle’s thoughts, where he went and when, how he became a natural philosopher, the way he organized his papers, what he ate for breakfast, and what he worried about in his spare time. But when exploring Boyle’s private life, author Michael Hunter is less forthcoming.

If some parts of Boyle remain hidden, this is not through a lack of scholarship on Hunter’s part. He covers the central events of Boyle’s scientific life with insight and neat summation, from the time of his intellectual blossoming at Oxford University in the late 1650s to his first few years in the 1670s as an established, though retiring, natural philosopher in London. Notably, Hunter’s account of Boyle’s relationship with the Royal Society brings to light some surprises for anyone interested in the origins of modern science. Boyle was remarkably offhand about the business of the society: skipping meetings, replying casually to inquiries, and generally echoing the behavior of the younger Boyle, a disengaged schoolboy who required bribes of sweets and toys to keep his attention. At the same time, Hunter’s account of Boyle’s profuse writings during his Oxford years provides a superb tying-together of the threads that made up his experimental program for the new science.

On either side of the well-discussed episodes in Boyle’s life—his air pump; his studies on color, cold, and respiration; his exchanges with Thomas Hobbes, Robert Hooke, and Isaac Newton—Hunter reviews the less well-known parts of Boyle’s career. We find in his younger years that Boyle was not well-behaved, psychologically stable, or particularly interested in science. Not until his mid-20s did he find his way into a laboratory, via Stoic philosophy and a search for God through nature. In his later years Boyle was industrious but troubled. He led and sponsored religious projects in New England and India, translated the English Bible into Gaelic, and tried strenuously to turn base metal into gold and salt water into pure water. Yet his public projects were disrupted by commercial complications, political wrangles, and his own indecision. And his inner life had wrangles and complications of its own; even his moral confidants of later years could not calm his unsettled conscience.

This is primarily a historian’s book. Hunter’s extensive use of a newly discovered document (the tortured and tantalizing “Burnet Memorandum”) and his sensitivity to the concrete details of Boyle’s manuscripts (the evolution of Boyle’s paper management is a story in itself) are the most obvious proofs of many years spent poring over the Boyle archive. However, this should not put off chemists, science enthusiasts, or story lovers. Hunter has a real admiration for Boyle, and his frank statements of Boyle’s genius are refreshing at a time when historians of science are coy about celebrating past scientists. The book also has moments of poignancy, intimacy, and even absurdity. Boyle’s love for his sister Katherine is moving, especially in his last days, and his fondness for fishing shows a leisurely side to this “profound yet anxious and convoluted thinker” (p. 208). We share some of his self-satisfaction as he commissions a large portrait following his scientific triumphs of the early 1660s and distributes copies among friends. And his correspondence with the French fraudster Georges Pierre has an absurd quality, as Boyle—Europe’s most famous natural philosopher by this time—is tricked into sending expensive gifts to a nonexistent cabal of alchemists.

Yet I cannot say, after finishing this book, that I know Boyle. The book drops hints, but between characterizations of Boyle as the agreeable virtuoso and Boyle as the stutterer who welcomed visitors only for their knowledge, the complete Boyle remains ambiguous. Was he as convoluted in person as he was on paper? How did he get on with his family? Aside from too-brief comments on his affection for Katherine, there is little on his family relations beyond his early years. How much this disembodiment of Boyle is due to the lack of documents on his personal life or Hunter’s selection of those documents is unclear. Regardless, this book does more than simply bring Boyle biography into line with Boyle scholarship. It is a leap forward in revealing Boyle, and in a way that Boyle himself might have approved.