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Happy to Be Here: Heavenly hills in England


I traveled to England for the first time this summer – to London for a week and the Lake District for another week. I did not expect to be dazzled by the scenery but I was.

I marveled at the orderly row houses on London streets and the tidy villages and the fields in the North, where I had the best surprise.

We stayed near Keswick, Cumbria, a historic market town surrounded by the Skiddaw Mountain range in the Lake District National Park, which was recently designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We were in the Coach House for Ormathwaite Hall, a manor house set on a hill between Bassenthwaite Lake and Derwentwater, another lake. We could sit on a bench in the garden behind the house, and see Derwentwater and hills in the distance.

The converted Coach House was as impressive as the 18th-century Georgian Manor House, with its vaulted ceilings and expansive gardens. But the surprise was not so much the beauty of the place as learning about a former inhabitant.

William Brownrigg (1711-1800) was a physician who used the Coach House as his laboratory. He spent much of his life doing research.

The son of local gentry, he was educated in Latin and Greek by a local clergyman. He was an apprentice to an apothecary before studying under a surgeon in London, then attending the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. He received the degree of Doctor of Medicine in 1737 with his thesis “De Praxi Medica Ineunda” – about the environment where the clinician practices medicine.

Brownrigg had a practice in Whitehaven, a seaport surrounded by mountains, when he became interested in the health and welfare of miners.

He investigated the gases the miners breathed – fire damp (methane) and choke damp (oxygen depleted air). He built a laboratory for Brownrigg and fed it with gases from a nearby coal mine through lead pipes. Brownrigg developed methods of collecting and transferring the gases. Because of his research The Royal Society elected Brownrigg as a fellow.

After visiting a spa resort in Germany he became interested in gases found in mineral waters. A paper he published entitled “Experimental inquiry concerning the nature of the mineral elastic spirit or air contained in the Pouhon water, and other acidulae” earned him the prestigious Copley Medal in 1766.

Browrigg is credited with discovering platinum. In 1741, a relative, Charles Wood, a British metallurgist, found samples of Colombian platinum in Jamaica, which he sent to Brownrigg. In 1750, after studying the platinum sent to him by Wood, Brownrigg studied the samples and in 1750, presented an account of Wood’s experiments and his own to the Royal Society. He had seen no accounts of that metal as a known element and he suspected it was a new element. His presentation encouraged other scientists to study the attributes of platinum.

Brownrigg also sought a way for England to become independent of importing salt from France and Spain, countries at war with Britain in the 18th century. He wrote a book on salt manufacture, “The Art of Making Common Salt,” aimed at improving domestic production and helping the fishing industry and economy in Britain and America. According to a contemporary scholar, The Royal Society considered a paper on Browrigg’s treatise the best paper read there in 50 years.

And there’s an American connection to William Brownrigg.

According to Wikipedia, the major source for this column, “In 1771 Benjamin Franklin was on a tour of Britain with Sir John Pringle who advised him to visit William Brownrigg. Franklin stayed at Brownrigg’s home of Ormathwaite in the Lake District and was presented with a signed copy of his book on salt. Franklin demonstrated his experiment of adding oil to the water surface of Derwentwater to calm the waves.

Franklin later corresponded with Brownrigg on the subject leading to another paper for The Royal Society’s transactions.

Browrigg had business interests too. He invested in the iron industry in Wales and he inherited a share of a ropery from his wife’s father. He also invested in the Keswick Turnpike Trust.

At Ormathwaite, Brownrigg worked on improving local agriculture and studied the minerals. He encouraged Thomas West to write “A Guide to the Lakes,” the first guide book to the Lake District. He was also a magistrate and the equivalent of a tax collector.

Brownrigg died in 1800 and was buried at Crosthwaite Church. “His friend and biographer Joshua Dixon felt that his importance and abilities had been overlooked due to his modesty and reluctance to leave his home county of Cumberland in later life,” Wikipedia says.

Back in Bucks County, I discovered that Ormathwaite is for sale – all of it – the Manor House with six bedrooms, the Coach House, the gardens and orchard, the outbuildings, on 3.3 acres, for 2,275,000 pounds, almost $3 million.

Original references are in “William Brownrigg” at