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Shrapnel, Plimsoll, Joule, Boole: eponyms in science and invention

You have to feel sorry for Christopher Leyland. Having inherited his father’s Northumberland country estate in 1889, Leyland dedicated his life to its improvement, paying particular attention to the gardens and the cultivation of trees. By his death in 1926 the estate boasted (among many other things) a palm house, an arboretum, and a menagerie with deer, ostrich, and bears. Leyland even oversaw the rebuilding of his country mansion—bigger and better than before—after it was destroyed by fire.

So far so good. And there was still time for one further achievement. As a talented silviculturist Christopher Leyland successfully crossed two strains of cypress fir to produce a remarkably fast growing conifer that was named in his honour. At the time his discovery was thought a success; indeed, one of his new trees was planted, and quickly shot up, next to his grave. However, that tree was the eponymous Leylandii  which—following its ill-advised introduction into British suburbia—has become an object of fear and loathing, despised by many gardeners for its rampancy. In his lifetime Leyland was a model of industry and achievement. But to posterity he is remembered principally for that tree: his name (albeit in Latinized form) tantamount to a curse on the lips of middle Britain. How Christopher Leyland might have wished for a more sympathetic botanical legacy, like those enjoyed by Leonhart Fuchs (1501-66, fuchsia ) or Anders Dahl (1751-89, dahlia ).

Last month’s article on eponyms—‘The hero on your plate ’—looked at how certain brands have been named after leading figures to enhance their appeal, Garibaldi biscuits and Earl Grey tea being two examples. But Christopher Leyland is a reminder that, in the worlds of scientific discovery and invention, eponyms do not necessarily enhance a person’s reputation. Nor are they always causes for celebration. In 1785, for instance, a young army officer began work on a new kind of armament: an explosive device, filled with lead shot, which on detonation sprayed pellets in every direction. The weapon was subsequently used to ‘good effect’ by the British military commander, Arthur Wellesley, who—with Wellington boots—has his own place in the eponym hall of fame.  Soon after deploying the new bomb, Wellesley wrote to its inventor, one Henry Shrapnel (1761-1842), to inform him of its destructive potential.

Eponyms of illness

Other scientific eponyms are equally serious, though the efforts of their human originators more life affirming than those of Henry Shrapnel. In recent years, for example, public discussion of Asperger’s Syndrome (after the Austrian paediatrician, Hans Asperger) has become increasingly common, as have concerns over Alzheimer’s (German psychiatrist, Aloysius Alzheimer) in an ageing population. Among British physicians remembered eponymously there’s John Langdon-Down (1828-96), for his work—subsequently much developed—on Down’s syndrome and Thomas Addison (1795-1860), who gave his name to the endocrinal disorder, Addison’s disease; likewise Thomas Hodgkin (1798-1866, Hodgkin’s lymphoma) and the renal specialist Richard Bright (1789-1858, Bright’s disease), both of whom worked with Thomas Addison at Guy’s Hospital, London. For Richard Bright, acknowledgement came relatively early with the naming of the ‘maladie de Bright’ in 1838. By contrast, Hodgkin’s contribution was only recognized towards the end of his life (his findings having been recovered by another doctor), while it was not until fifty years after his death that the achievements of James Parkinson (1755-1824) were marked with the naming of the degenerative neurological disease, Parkinson’s or Parkinsonism.

Moderate, becoming good

Elsewhere, scientific eponyms refer to acts of life preservation rather than pathology. In the 1870s about 3000 British sailors were drowned annually as a result of unsafe and unregulated merchant shipping. For thirty years the shipping reformer Samuel Plimsoll campaigned to prevent the use of unseaworthy vessels until, in 1890, it became a legal requirement to measure cargoes against a load- or Plimsoll line, painted on a ship’s hull.  Other seagoing innovations include the Beaufort scale, named after the Victorian hydrologist Sir Francis Beaufort who—in twelve categories from ‘calm’ to ‘hurricane’—provided sailors with the first consistent account of wind speeds and conditions at sea. To mariners, Beaufort’s scale offers certainty and reassurance, while land-dwellers can experience his categories and descriptors vicariously via the radio Shipping Forecast. It’s here that you’ll learn day-to-day whether a sea area like Fitzroy is ‘good, becoming moderate’ or ‘storm force 10, decreasing’. Named after the meteorologist Robert Fitzroy (1805-1865), here’s another long-posthumous eponym, as it was not until 2002 that Finisterre (located off north-west Spain) was renamed in Robert’s honour.

We need to talk about Kelvin

To develop his scale, Beaufort observed, measured, and classified a natural phenomenon—a route to many more science-based eponyms celebrating innovations in seeing and understanding.  Some, quite literally, are household names. The application of electrical current and potential—amps and volts, André-Marie Ampère (1775-1836) and Alessandro Volta (1745-1827)—may go some way to explaining why your house or office is warm this winter. However, it’s thanks to the German physicist Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit (1686-1736), inventor of the mercury thermometer, that we’re able to give precise measurements of heat and cold. Precision remains in the eye of the physicist, of course. Another, more specialist, measure of temperature is the kelvin, named after the Glasgow University engineer William Thomson, first Baron Kelvin, whose vastly more extensive scale makes possible measurements from absolute zero (known as 0 K, or -459.67 degrees Farenheit). Now one of the internationally recognized systems of unit measurement, the kelvin ranks alongside the second, kilogram, and metre, as well as the watt and joule (the latter two being measures of energy conversion, named for the Scottish engineer James Watt and the Lancashire physicist, James Joule).

Malthus to Murphy

That you’re reading about Joule, Watt, and others, on screen owes much to the mathematician George Boole (1815-1864) after whom Boolean algebra —the basis for the design of all modern computers—is named. Boole’s influence is also evident in the career of his fellow logician, John Venn (1834-1923), who in the 1880s devised a highly functional and versatile means of representing logical relations by way of interlocking circles—known to later generations of maths students as the Venn diagram. Whereas Venn devised the means to focus on specific inter-relationships, other eponyms encapsulate classifications and systems of knowledge with global, even universal, implications: from the Malthusian principle of population growth to Darwinian evolutionary biology and Newtonian physics. But even Thomas Malthus, Charles Darwin, and Isaac Newton, may not have the reach, and appeal, of a final (albeit imaginary) principle, known colloquially as Murphy’s Law. Possibly named in the 1940s for a US air force officer, Captain Edward Murphy, this supposed law of nature states that ‘anything that can go wrong, will go wrong’. Murphy’s own field was aircraft testing but the beauty of ‘his’ law is its universal applicability: hence, whoever moves in next door to you is certain to plant leylandii.

You can read more about the people mentioned in this article with the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Just click on a highlighted name to find out more.