RSC honours forgotten Scottish scientific hero

09 November 2011

Scientist, philanthropist, adventurer, anti-slavery campaigner. James 'Paraffin' Young was all of these. Yet despite his incredible achievements, no statue in his memory exists.

The Royal Society of Chemistry is today calling for that to change as it announces the award of a chemical landmark plaque to honour one of Scotland's forgotten scientists - and the world's first oil magnate - in the 200th anniversary of his birth in Drygate, Glasgow.

When the Scottish public voted for their top 10 scientists of all time in 2009 to enter the Science Hall of Fame at the National Library of Scotland, familiar names such as John Logie Baird, Alexander Fleming and Alexander Graham Bell were obvious choices. Young failed to make the list.

Yet his contribution not just to science, but to humanity through his tireless work as an anti-slavery campaigner, means a statue in his name is long overdue to serve as a reminder to his legacy.

The son of a carpenter and cabinet maker, Young began his professional life as an academic, working as an assistant to Professor Thomas Graham at Anderson's Institution in Glasgow, despite having a scant education. Young had taken evening classes from the age of 19, where his talent was spotted and he soon fell under Graham's spell. He quit academia in 1848 to work on a new commercial venture, to make fuel from a spring of naphtha, flammable liquid mixtures of hydrocarbons, which had been found on an estate in Derbyshire. 

Young successfully worked out a process for distilling the liquid into oil, which could be used for lighting and lubrication in Manchester's cotton mills. When the source dried up, he looked around for another source of raw materials. Word reached him that the people of Bathgate used 'cannel coal' (or candle coal as it burned like a candle) to light their houses. The news drew him to West Lothian - a decision which was to reap huge rewards. 

One of the useful liquids he obtained after carrying our many experiments using the coal was named 'paraffin oil' because, at low temperatures, it congealed into a substance like paraffin wax. Young patented the process and in 1851, at Whiteside, Bathgate, he established his commercial oil works - the world's first oil refinery - acquiring his nickname in the process.

It opened nine years before the first oil well was drilled in the United States. 

The shale oil boom transformed the economy and the landscape of West Lothian, leaving huge piles of shale across central Scotland. At its height, there were 40,000 people employed at 120 refineries in the region and three million tons of shale and coal were mined and treated. The bings can still be seen though some of the shale was used in the construction of the M8, Scotland's busiest motorway connecting Edinburgh and Glasgow.

In 1865, the chemist formed Young's Paraffin Light and Mineral Oil Company near Bathgate, which sold oil and paraffin lamps around the world and earned him his nickname. But he took no active part in the business, withdrawing to look after his considerable estate and indulge in his pastimes of yachting, travelling and scientific pursuits.

When he was working in Manchester he began a movement for the establishment of a new newspaper - the Manchester Examiner, first published in 1846 - because he found the Manchester Guardian insufficiently liberal.

Of Young's many interests outside of science, one was philanthropy. A contemporary at Anderson's had been David Livingstone, the famous African explorer and medical missionary, who had studied medicine there. Young's experiments had made him a wealthy man and he financed many of his friend's journeys in Africa and any debt incurred by him, whether for the purchase of freedom slaves from Arab traders or for goods from Portuguese merchants, was honoured by Young.

He contributed 1000 towards the last Zambesi trip and he financed an expedition to Africa under Lieutenant Grandy to locate Livingstone, but he was too late to find him alive. Young made provision for Livingstone's wife and children and arranged that the bearers who had carried his body to the coast should be brought to London and given a place of honour in the funeral procession. He continued to finance the anti-slavery movement.

His inventions and his business ventures brought him great wealth, but the import of crude oil from the Persian Gulf undermined the Scottish oil industry and after the Second World War, many plants were closed. The last in West Lothian shut in 1962. 

Young retired from his company completely in 1870 and died aged 71, at his home in Wemyss Bay in 1883, survived by his wife Mary, three sons and four daughters. His name lives on, in the James Young School in Livingston and the Young Chair of Technical Chemistry at the University of Strathclyde. 

RSC President Professor David Phillips believes it is time a statue is made in memory one of the greats of Scottish science. 

Speaking at the Royal Society of Chemistry's Science and the Scottish Parliament event at Holyrood, Professor Phillips said: "The RSC today honours the work of James Young with the award of our landmark plaque. Now let us honour the man. Not only was James Young a great scientist, he was a great human being and his legacy continues today. He paid for statues in memory of his great friend David Livingstone and to his old mentor Thomas Graham - at Glasgow Cathedral and in George Square respectively. Surely it is time we pay for a statue in James Young's honour to inspire the scientists of the future."

In 1873 Young was elected a Fellow of Royal Society and in 1879 he was awarded an honorary doctorate of St Andrews University. James Young died at his home, Kelly House, near Wemyss Bay, on 13 May 1883, and was buried at Inverkip cemetery.

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