J.W. Draper’s Introductory Lecture in the Course of Chemistry at the University of New York

John William Draper is often accused of cribbing after Comte and Buckle. But Draper had formulated his own ideas years before these other men published their work. Draper was considered a popular lecturer by his contemporaries. Thus when he began lecturing at the University of New York in the 1840s, many of these lectures were immediately published. In his introductory lecture to the course of chemistry for the medical department, Draper spoke of the intimate relationship between chemistry and medicine. “There is not a force in nature which does not affect us,” he told his students. To understand the physical agent, we must have a “general idea of the structure of the earth, the ocean, and the atmosphere; the various laws which regulate each, and the phenomena they exhibit.” In other words, to understand the individual, one must know something of his environment.

Draper goes on to argue that “The changes that we see in living things, are the consequences of fixed and immutable laws.” To understand these laws is to enter the “house of REASON.” Anticipating T.H. Huxley’s later sentiments in his “On A Piece of Chalk,” Draper informed his audience that “in each single grain of tripoli, which is found in beds and strata many feet thick, and extending over areas of many miles, it is known that there are the remains of more than a hundred and eighty millions of individuals…There is not a spot on which you place your feet, that does not cover the remains of unspeakable millions.” The dead beneath our feet provides us with a moral lesson, Draper relates. “We see that not only have individuals passed away, but also whole species, tribes, and genera, have become extinct. In the periods of human record has not the same thing happened? Great empires and mighty republics have ceased to exist, and the specific tribes of men that founded them have vanished.” According to Draper, this has all come to pass through the “operations of general laws.” “The march of events in the human family, is as little under your control as the march of those planets in the sky.” Interestingly, Draper closed his lecture by stating that “the broad hand of an overruling PROVIDENCE is also plainly discovered, dispensing with an unerring justice the rewards of national merit and national crime.”[1]

[1] John William Draper, Introductory Lecture in the Course of Chemistry: University of New-York, Medical Department (New York: Hopkins & Jennings, 1841).

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