Roamer: How pair of Irish scientists took the first steps into nuclear age

Richard Kirwan
Richard Kirwan

An extraordinarily wide range of topics is shared regularly on Roamer’s pages, generally with a local link to people or places in Northern Ireland.

An extraordinarily wide range of topics is shared regularly on Roamer’s pages, generally with a local link to people or places in Northern Ireland.

Falling into both of those categories, but never mentioned here before until today, is Strontium-90, the most dangerous constituent of nuclear fallout.

It’ll doubtlessly be much referred to on the forthcoming 70th anniversaries of the two atomic bombs that devastated Nagasaki and Hiroshima in August 1945.

Two Irish scientists were profoundly involved with the discovery and analysis of Strontium-90, Richard Kirwan born in Cloughballymore, County Galway, in 1733, and Adair Crawford, born near Crumlin, County Antrim, in 1748.

Theirs’ is an amazing story that started in Scotland and includes sugar, cow manure, fireworks and a tame eagle!

A number of scientists are credited with the discovery of Strontium but it was physician Adair Crawford who began experimenting on the naturally-found substance in 1784, and

along with Scottish surgeon and chemist William Cruickshank concluded in 1790 that they’d discovered something completely new to science.

Four years later the Irish chemist Richard Kirwan presented a landmark thesis to the Royal Irish Academy about various experiments involving Strontium.

It was Sir Humphrey Davy - the inventor of the iconic coal-miners lamp - who isolated the unknown element strontium from Scottish strontionite in 1807-1808.

The substance was first detected in in a lead mine at Strontian, a village on the shores of Loch Sunart in Argyllshire. The mineral been known about as far back as 1764, but it was not recognized as a distinct mineral until Crawford and Cruikshank happened upon what they called “new earth”.

Crawford concluded that his ore “exhibited properties that differed from those normally seen in other ‘heavy spars’ (crystals)” and wrote in an academic tome “it is probable

indeed that the scotch mineral is a new species of earth whichhas not hitherto been sufficiently examined.”

Born in 1748 in Ballytromery, near Crumlin, Crawford was a physician and chemist who’d studied medicine at Glasgow and Edinburgh Universities.

He was Professor of Chemistry at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich and his research in chemical physiology was widely acclaimed. He wrote a number of very important scientific manuals and was a Fellow of the Royal Society and an eminent physician in St Thomas’s Hospital.

Adair Crawford died in July 1795 and has been honoured in more recent years by having a rare mineral species - crawfordite - named after him. His namesake mineral, first observed and analysed on the Kola Peninsula in Russia, appropriately contains Strontium in its atomic structure.

In the 19th century the production of sugar from sugar beet was Strontium’s most widespread industrial application, and apart from the damage it causes in nuclear fallout, compounds from Crawford’s historic discovery are used in cathode ray colour television tubes, ceramics and glass, medically and in toothpastes, and are the red colouring agents in certain types of fireworks.

Also with his Irish eyes firmly focussed on Strontium-90 was Richard Kirwan, born on 1 August 1733 in Cloughballymore, County Galway. Something of an eccentric, Kirwan was active in the fields of chemistry, meteorology and geology.

Part of his early life was spent abroad when in 1754 he left home to become a Jesuit.

He returned when he inherited his family estate, married in 1757, and had two daughters with his wife Anne. At one point in their marriage he discovered that Anne had enormous debts and he was imprisoned for non-payment! Sadly, she died after only eight years of marriage.

After a short period as a lawyer, in 1768 he concentrated on scientific pursuits and spent 19 years in London. In 1787 Kirwan moved to Dublin and in 1799 became president of the Royal Irish Academy.

He wrote nearly 40 studies of meteorology, pure and applied chemistry, geology, magnetism and philology. His best known publications included ‘The Elements of Mineralogy’, the first systematic work on the subject in English; and his ‘Thoughts on Magnetism’ and his views in relation to the Aurora Borealis were popular amongst scientists. He also published essays on the analysis of soils and the nature of manures.

On 9 January 1794 Kirwan read a paper to the Royal Irish Academy describing a number of careful experiments including the preparation of salts of Strontium and of its oxide and hydroxide.

His work greatly contributed to the examination of the properties of Scotland’s strontianite and to the preparation of several compounds of strontium and their differentiation from those of barium, till then its nearest known ‘relative’.

His detailed exploration of Strontium-90, published in 1804 and reprinted “with considerable improvements and additions” makes difficult reading for an uninformed non-scientist like Roamer, but it put Crawford’s findings firmly into the annals of scientific discovery.

Various stories are told about Richard Kirwan’s eccentricities! In later year he enjoyed walking his six Irish wolfhounds when he was often to be seen with his tame eagle perched on his shoulder. He loved the big bird and was devastated when someone shot it as it swooped down onto his shoulder. The man with the gun thought it was attacking Kirwan! One of Kirwan’s more endearing characteristics remains extremely attractive - he had strict rules about visitors to his home. They were allotted specific time-slots to call on him and for the rest of the day he removed his door-knocker! He died in 1812 at the age of 79.