John Joly, the polymathic genius whose greatest legacy continues to save lives
05 April 2016
Author: Kenneth L Mitchell explores the life of the great Irish physicist, famous for his development of radiotherapy in the treatment of cancer
If the word ‘polymath’ hadn’t already been in usage it would require invention in order to describe John Joly: engineer, medical science pioneer, geologist, physicist, educator, inventor, poet, soldier.
Even among polymaths, John Joly was extraordinary; making major scientific advancements in such diverse fields as colour photography, geochronology, geology, tectonics, optics, chemistry, mechanics, experimental equipment and cancer radiation therapy.
John Joly was born in 1857 in what was then known as Kings County (now Offaly), at Hollywood House near the village of Bracknagh.
He was the youngest son of three to the Anglican rector of Clonbullogue parish, the Reverend John Plunkett Joly and Julia (nee Countess de Lusi). His family had an extraordinary heritage, his father’s Belgium ancestors were law councils to the French monarchy and his mother was Prussian/Italian nobility. John’s father died soon after he was born. The family moved to Dublin, moving first to Pembroke Road, then Wellington Road and finally settling in Northbrook Road.
Instilled a love of science and engineering within him
Unsurprisingly, John was given the best education available and attended Rathmines School between 1872 and 1875. This instilled a love of science and engineering within him, so much so that he was given the nickname ‘professor’ due to his regular tinkering with gadgets and chemicals.
He also became interested in poetry, getting several poems published in the school paper. While they would never grant him fame, poetry and literature would always be a passion of his.
As he grew John began to utilise his European heritage by adopting a French accent in order to conceal a lisp. He grew up to be a tall man with a distinctive groomed style, hair swept back, bushy moustache and spouting a dandyesque prince-nez.
A university education beckoned and John entered Trinity College Dublin where he read the diverse subjects of English literature and engineering. He earned first class honours in the former and first place in the latter subjects with the addition of various special certificates in several branches of engineering when he graduated in 1882.
He would remain in Trinity after graduating, always employed by the university. His first position was as a demonstrator in Trinity’s engineering and physics departments, acting as an assistant to the professor of civil engineering.
Published his first scientific paper, on the use of meteorological instruments at a distance
In 1883 he published his first scientific paper, on the use of meteorological instruments at a distance. He also conducted a study on the Krakatoa volcanic eruption. This was one of the biggest eruptions in recorded history and Joly ingeniously thought to gather volcanic ash samples from a docked Norwegian ship that had been in the vicinity of the blast. He would conduct a microscopic study on this dust and publish another academic paper.
It was in his junior position as an experimental demonstrator that John began using his engineering mind to invent and improve on various scientific instruments; a grease spot photometer (to measure light intensity), a stream calorimeter (specific heats), a constant volume gas thermometer and a meldometer (melting point of minerals). These were so successful that he was able to sell some of them commercially to scientific instrument companies in Ireland and the UK.
In 1891 his role switched to the Department of Natural and Experimental Philosophy and he acted as an assistant to Professor George F Fitzgerald, whose work would influence Einstein. Here Joly would create one of his most famous inventions: colour photography.
‘Joly process’ allowed for the easy production and viewing of colour images on a glass plate
His method, known as the ‘Joly process’, allowed for the easy production and viewing of colour images on a glass plate and would be later adopted by Kodak. Using an ordinary isometric camera plate he finely marked it with alternately coloured lines of red/orange, green/yellow and blue/violet ink and then placed it in the camera in front of the negative plate as the photograph was taken. When developed, the negative plates would be viewed through a similar screen that would enable viewing of an accurately and vividly coloured transparent picture.
John never married (although he came close to it once) but he did develop a very close relationship with Henry Dixon who would go on to become a professor of botany at Trinity. They holidayed together and even lived across the road from each other. In death, Henry would inherit John’s house and they were buried beside each other when Henry died in turn (beside Henry’s wife).
In 1894 Joly and Dixon would solve one of the biggest mysteries of botany: how did sap rise in plants and trees? The answer known as ‘cohesion tension theory’ was down to motive forces produced by a pressure differential which in turn was caused by evaporation from leaves. It is probable that in this research, Joly contributed his knowledge of physics and Dixon the experimentation aspect of it.
These discoveries that would finally give him the academic recognition he deserved. He was awarded a Sc.D. and elected a Fellow of the prestigious Royal Society.
In 1897 his career pinnacled and he was appointed chair of geology and mineralogy
In 1897 his career pinnacled and he was appointed chair of geology and mineralogy, a post he would hold for 36 years until his death. His first major piece of research in this field was on geochronology. At the time many scientists believed the Earth was 20 million years old as calculated by Lord Kelvin.
Working with Ernest Rutherford he calculated the salinity of the oceans due to natural erosion and from that was able to calculate the age of the Earth: 100 million years old by his calculations. This theory was a major landmark on the road to the correct calculation.
Joly’s theories on Earth age calculation would later be disproved in turn as he disproved his predecessor, Lord Kelvin, but that does not mean he failed in any regard. He brought the science forward and narrowed down the methodology; not just on the Earth’s age but also on plate tectonics, geophysics and continental drift. As Isaac Newton himself put it, “if I have seen further, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants”, John was fast becoming one of those giants.
The 1900s heralded the dawn of a new nuclear age with the discovery of the radioactive element radium and X-rays and John threw himself into this new study, publishing a major book on the subject in 1911.
Thought he had discovered a new radioactive element which he patriotically wanted to name ‘Hibernium’
At one point he even thought he had discovered a new radioactive element which he patriotically wanted to name ‘Hibernium’; unfortunately it turned out to be the already discovered Samarium.
He was one of the first to realise that the age of rocks could be calculated by studying its radioactive decay/residual radioactivity in their minerals. He used this research to great effect calculating the age of various mountain ranges, their geological periods and reassessing his Earth age calculations.
You could be forgiven for thinking that John was a stuffy academic stuck in a lab or library cut off from the world but that would be far from the case. An avid hill walker and sailor, he postulated some of his best theories halfway up the Wicklow or Kerry mountains or in the middle of the Irish Sea. He also wasn’t averse to scientific field work, once risking his life and those of several fishermen as he paid them to row out from Valentia Island in thick fog for several hours in order to get to Great Fonze Rock and collect samples.
Joly studied the research being conducted by Marie Curie in France on radioactive elements and he extended his research into their use for medical purposes, especially fighting cancer. His research into radiation radiotherapy is his greatest achievement and one that brought him worldwide fame.
Pioneered the ‘Dublin Method’ for treating internal cancers
In 1914, in conjunction with the then junior surgeon Dr Walter Stevenson, he pioneered the ‘Dublin Method’ for treating internal cancers. It involved using a hollow needle containing a thin glass tube which was full of a relatively cheap radioactive radon gas (as opposed to the normally used expensive radium at 165 million per kilo) to treat tumours beneath the skin. It is a method that was the forerunner of modern cancer treatments.
Joly went on to help form the Radium Institute at the RDS which was then empowered to supply radioactive materials for cancer treatment to other hospitals.
When World War One broke out he was too old to be considered for military service but, at Easter 1916, Dublin itself became a war zone as republican rebels seized several buildings around the city in what was to mark the beginning of Ireland’s War of Independence. As a member of the university’s Officer Reserve Corp he was called into action in order to defend Trinity from any action the rebels might take against that bastion of unionism.
It is unknown if he ever discharged his rifle but it is known he did witness the killing of a republican dispatch rider and respectively attended to the body. His diary detailing those events is a unique perspective of that period.
Indeed Joly seemed to have the ability to see the perspectives of those with opposing views to him, his own nuanced viewpoints and non-confrontational style enabled him to campaign for better facilities for students and increased educational opportunities for the disadvantaged. He even campaigned to make Trinity more acceptable to Catholic students (although he did balk at the final proposal to amalgamate Trinity with UCC, UCD and QUB).
As an educator Joly campaigned for better facilities for students especially among scientists, but not just for the elite at Trinity but also for women and the working classes. He became Warden of Alexandra College for ladies and frequently gave lectures at the YMCA in Dublin.
His research with radioactive elements would have ill effects on him
In 1932 and in a similar fashion to his peer Marie Curie’s experience with radiation, Joly’s research with radioactive elements would have ill effects on him. In the course of his research on the effects of radioactivity on memory, and in the not so grand tradition of scientists experimenting on themselves, he inserted radioactive elements in his hat and proceeded to wear it regularly. In a dark irony he never published this research and it has been speculated that this might have affected his mental health in later life.
John Joly died on December 8, 1933, his close friend Dixon burying him in Mount Jerome cemetery.
Joly was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1892, was awarded the Boyle Medal of the Royal Dublin Society in 1911, the Royal Medal of the Royal Society of London in 1910, and the Murchison Medal of the Geological Society of London in 1923. He was also conferred honorary degrees by the National University of Ireland, the University of Cambridge and the University of Michigan.
After his death, his friends subscribed the sum of £1,700 to set up a memorial fund which is still used to promote the annual Joly Memorial Lectures at the University of Dublin, which were inaugurated by Sir Ernest Rutherford in 1935. He is also remembered by the Joly Geological Society, a student geological association established in 1960 and in 1973 a crater on Mars was named in his honour. He published 269 scientific papers, several books and broke the mould in research in multiple fields.
There are many candidates for Ireland’s most eminent scientist but if sheer volume of work in multiple fields is the criteria, John Joly wins hands down.
http://www.engineersjournal.ie/2016/04/05/john-joly-the-polymathic-genius-whose-greatest-legacy-continues-to-save-lives/http://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/aaajj3.jpghttp://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/aaajj3-300x300.jpgBioQueen's University Belfast,research,Trinity College Dublin,UCC,UCD,United Kingdom