Robinson and Helsham

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Bryan Robinson and Richard Helsham

‘Having shewn how the Aether causes a great Part of the Phaenomena of Nature, it may be ask’d whence this general material Cause has its great Activity and Power. For since its Particles, do not touch, and yet repel one another with great Force, there must be some Cause interceding the Particles, which gives them this repulsive Power. This Cause must be either Matter or Spirit, there being nothing in the Universe, which we know of, besides these two. But this Cause cannot be Matter; for Matter is in its own Nature inert, and has not any Activity in itself; and consequently, cannot communicate any Power to the AEther. And therefore the Cause, which gives the AEther its Activity and Power, must be Spirit.’

Extract from the ‘General Scholium’ of Bryan Robinson’s A
dissertation on the aether of Sir Isaac Newton
(Dublin, 1743).


Portrait of Bryan Robinson

Bryan Robinson (1680-1754) was a Trustee of Dr Steevens’ Hospital in the early eighteenth century. Educated at Trinity College Dublin in the first decade of the eighteenth century he would later be appointed Regius Professor of Physic there. Robinson was at the cutting edge of medical enquiry and, as Loudon (2004) states, has been credited with the discovery of the differential pulse rate. He was named as a governor in the founding act of Dr Steevens’ Hospital and served as a physician there in 1733, 1737 and 1741. A prominent Dublin physician of his day, Robinson is today best known for two publications: his Treatise of the Animal Oeconomy (Dublin, 1732-3) and A Dissertation on the aether of Sir Isaac Newton (Dublin, 1743). As both works clearly demonstrate, Robinson was greatly influenced by Newtonianism and sought to extend Newton’s concepts into a medical setting. To find out more about Newtonian medicine see the ‘Newton and Physicians’ webpage of the Worth Library’s online ‘Newton’ exhibition.


Portrait of Richard Helsham

Robinson has been a pupil of Richard Helsham (1683-1738) and was instrumental in the publication of the latter’s A Course of Lectures in Natural Philosophy, itself a work influenced by Newtonian theory. Helsham, a native of Kilkenny city, had been educated at Kilkenny College before moving to Trinity College Dublin where he took a BA (1702), MA (1705), MB (1709/10) and MD (1713). Elected a senior fellow in the following year he would later be appointed as Donegal lecturer in mathematics. (1723-30). Like Edward Worth and Bryan Robinson, Helsham was deeply committed to all things medical and scientific. Having initially provided a free lecture course in experimental philosophy he was later appointed to the first Erasmus Smith Chair of Natural and Experimental Philosophy at TCD (1724-1738) and to this was added the chair of Physic in 1733. Again, like Worth and Robinson, Helsham served as president of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland – in 1716 and 1725.

He is best known today for his A Course of Lectures in Natural Philosophy. This work, the first scientific book to be published by Dublin University Press, was published posthumously by Robinson, and became a best seller – indeed it continued to be regularly published until 1849. Its appeal was due to the simplicity of its approach and its eschewing of any contentious matter. Unlike his pupil Robinson, who actively engaged in debate, Helsham was content to rise above the scientific quarrels of his day, preferring to offer to his readers a study of scientific investigation made ‘entertaining and delightful’. Even Jonathan Swift, ever aware of the foibles of his contemporaries, could find little to criticism in a man who he considered ‘an ingenious good-humour’d Physician, a fine gentleman, an excellent scholar, easy in his fortunes, kind to everybody, hath abundance of friends’. Helsham, one of the original Trustees of Dr Steevens’ Hospital, and a visiting physician there, did not forget Dr Steevens’ Hospital, leaving the hospital £300 in his will.


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Guicciardini, Niccolò (1989), The Development of Newtonian Calculus in Britain 1700-1800 (Cambridge University Press).
Kirkpatrick, T. P. C. (1912) History of Medical Teaching in Trinity College Dublin and the School of Physic in Ireland (Dublin: Hanna and Neale).
Kirkpatrick, T. P. C. (1924; reprinted 2008) The History of Doctor Steevens’ Hospital Dublin, 1720-1920 (Dublin).
Norgate, G. Le G. (2004) ‘Robinson, Bryan (1680–1754)’, rev. Jean Loudon, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press.
O’Riordain, Turlough (2009), ‘Helsham, Richard’, Dictionary of Irish Biography (Cambridge University Press).
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Swift, Jonathan (2003), The Correspondence of Jonathan Swift, D.D. Edited by David Wooley (Peter Lang), vol iii, p. 210.
Welsh, H. T. (2004), ‘Helsham, Richard (1683-1738), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford.

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