Thomas Cooper

English-born American scientist and educator Thomas Cooper (1759-1839) was also a controversial political pamphleteer.

Thomas Cooper was born in Westminster, England, on Oct. 22, 1759. He studied at Oxford but failed to take a degree. He then heard anatomical lectures in London, took a clinical course at Middlesex Hospital, and attended patients briefly in Manchester. Having also qualified for the law, he traveled as a barrister, engaged briefly in business, and dabbled in philosophy and chemistry.

Being a materialist in philosophy and a revolutionist by temperament, Cooper believed that the English reaction against the French Revolution proved that freedom of thought and speech was no longer possible in England; in 1794 he emigrated to the United States with the scientist Joseph Priestley. He settled near Priestley at North-umberland, Pa., where he practiced law and medicine and began writing political pamphlets on behalf of the Jeffersonian party. In 1800 Cooper was jailed and fined under the new Alien and Sedition Acts.

After Thomas Jefferson's election to the U.S. presidency, Cooper served as a commissioner and then as a state judge, until in 1811 he was removed on a charge of arbitrary conduct by the Pennsylvania Legislature. Driven from politics, Cooper was elected to the chair of chemistry in Carlisle (now Dickinson) College and then served as professor of applied chemistry and mineralogy at the University of Pennsylvania until 1819. The following year (when clerical opposition denied him the chair Jefferson had created for him at the University of Virginia) Cooper became professor of chemistry in South Carolina College (now University of South Carolina). Elected president of the college, he maintained his connection with it until 1834.

Cooper served mainly as a disseminator of scientific information and as a defender of science against religious encroachments. He edited the Emporium of Arts and Sciences; published practical treatises on dyeing and calico printing, gas lights, and tests for arsenic; and edited several European chemistry textbooks for American use. In Discourse on the Connexion between Chemistry and Medicine (1818) he upheld the materialist position. In On the Connection between Geology and the Pentateuch (1836) Cooper attacked those who sought to correlate geological findings with the biblical account of creation.

A member of the American Philosophical Society, Cooper received an honorary medical degree from the University of New York in 1817. He was twice married: to Alice Greenwood, with whom he had three children; and in 1811 to Elizabeth Hemming, with whom he had three children. He died on May 11, 1839.

Further Reading on Thomas Cooper

The only biography of Cooper is Dumas Malone, The Public Life of Thomas Cooper, 1783-1839 (1926). Benjamin Fletcher Wright, Jr., American Interpretations of Natural Law: A Study in the History of Political Thought (1931), analyzes Cooper's political ideas. Bernard Jaffe, Men of Science in America: The Role of Science in the Growth of Our Country (1944), includes material on Cooper.

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