John William Draper

The Anglo-American scientist and historian John William Draper (1811-1882) pioneered in scientific applications of photography and popularized a "scientific" approach to social and intellectual history.

John William Draper was born near Liverpool, England, on May 5, 1811. He did premedical studies at University College, London. In 1832 Draper, his wife, mother, and sisters sailed to America.

Settling in Mecklenburg County, Va., Draper began scientific research in his own laboratory. He experimented in capillary attraction and published on a variety of scientific subjects. He completed his medical studies at the University of Pennsylvania in 1836, then returned to Virginia to become professor of chemistry and natural philosophy at Hampden-Sidney College. He contributed to British and American scholarly journals. In 1838 he was appointed professor of chemistry and botany at the University of the City of New York.

Draper's career as a research scientist flowered from 1839 to 1856. His earliest important project involved him in a race with Samuel F. B. Morse to be the first in America to apply the photographic technique of the French inventor Louis Daguerre to portraiture. In solving these problems Draper developed expansive notions about the uses of photography in scientific investigation. A brilliant experimentalist, he was especially important for outlining the scientific applications of photography. He pioneered in expanding beyond both extremes of the visible spectrum with photographic techniques and was a founder of the theory of photochemical absorption.

Draper helped establish the medical school of the University of the City of New York and became its president in 1850. His Human Physiology (1856) marked the end of his scientific career.

Draper's second career—in history and social analysis—grew out of his first. He believed in the possibility of progress through science and technology and wrote about history and society with the conviction that a "scientific" approach to society was desirable. His History of the Intellectual Development of Europe (1863) traced the history of Western thought. Thoughts on the Future Civil Policy of America (1865) and a three-volume History of the American Civil War (1867-1870), the first serious history of the war, followed. His last major work, History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874), was a condensation of his 1863 book.

Convinced that nature was the compulsive force behind history, Draper in his version of environmental determinism emphasized climate. Although his histories are seriously defective, he was a pioneer in the history of ideas. After his death on Jan. 4, 1882, Draper's reputation as a scientist diminished while his fame as a historian flourished.

Further Reading on John William Draper

Donald H. Fleming, John William Draper and the Religion of Science (1950), is an excellent biography. For background material see Nathan Reingold, ed., Science in Nineteenth-Century America (1964), and Howard S. Miller, Pursuit of Science in Nineteenth Century America (1969).