Robert Boyle: Biography, Facts & Quotes

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy is a doctoral student at Virginia Commonwealth University studying media studies and cultural history.

In this lesson we will learn about the life of Robert Boyle, an Irish chemist who played an important role in the Scientific Revolution. We will explore his family life, education, religious attitude, and experience in Oxford, England.

Biography of a Chemist

Irish chemist Robert Boyle (1627-1691) was an important figure in the Scientific Revolution. Born into the aristocracy, Boyle never had to worry about finances. He inherited a wealth from his father, the Earl of Cork, which allowed him to spend his time traveling, writing, and experimenting in chemistry.

As we will see, the historical and cultural context of Boyle's life were influential in his worldview.

Portrait of Robert Boyle, Johann Kerseboom (1689)
boyle

Early Life

Robert Boyle was the 14th of 15 children born to the Earl of Cork. His younger sibling, Margaret, did not live past the age of 7, which left Robert the youngest. Since their mother died during Margaret's birth, Katherine (the eldest daughter, 12 years older than Robert) took on a maternal role.

At the age of 8, Boyle was sent to Eton College, a prestigious boarding school in Berkshire, England, south of Oxford and to the west of London. Then, at 12, he was sent to Europe on a 'continental tour', attended by his brother, Francis, and their tutor, Isaac Marcolmes.

On the Continent

From Geneva, Switzerland, they traveled to Florence, Italy, and then to Marseilles, France. In his teens, the conflict between religion and science were consistently on his mind. Boyle was a pious Anglican Christian. In the 17th century, the Church of England, and Protestantism in a broader sense, were still barely 100 years old. Boyle wanted to be a good Christian, but he had his doubts.

In Geneva, he wrote down in his journal, ''the greatest number of those that pass for Christians, profess themselves such only because Christianity is the religion of their Parents, or their Country, or their Prince, or those that have been, or may be, their Benefactors.'' Perhaps, Boyle wondered, there was truth beyond religion, to be found in nature, philosophy, or science.

Return to England

From Florence, Boyle and his comrades traveled to Marseilles. They arrived in 1642, to discover that they were suddenly destitute. As a result of the revolution in Ireland, their father had been unable to send them funds to cover their room and board. But the Earl had been able to send a letter. He advised Marcolmes to send the boys home to Ireland, or to Holland to stay with the Prince of Orange.

Francis chose to return home, and fought in the war alongside several of his brothers. Robert Boyle decided to stay with Marcolmes in Geneva.

At Stalbridge

Robert Boyle finally returned to England 2 years later, in 1644. Now 17, he had inherited the family estate at Stalbridge, a small village in the south of England over 100 miles away from London. Boyle, in fact, inherited a wealth from his father, the Earl, enough to sustain him throughout his life without having to take up paid employment.

Boyle resolved to settle in Stalbridge and make a life for himself. The education he had gathered at Eton and abroad lent him a curiosity for science. But without a furnace, the estate lacked the facility to support a scientific laboratory. In his first few years at Stalbridge, Boyle wrote extensively on ethics, theology, and moral philosophy. But something was nagging in him.

He gradually became discomforted with rural life. Though he had finally acquired a furnace and set up a laboratory, something was missing. He lacked camaraderie.

At Oxford

In 1655, Robert Boyle relocated to Oxford, England. With the help of his sister Katherine, Boyle moved to Oxford and took up rooms above the apothecary. At Oxford, he thrived. He wrote extensively and continued with his experimentation.

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