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Sir Michael Faraday

A Biography (Concentrated on his efforts to clean up the Thames River) By Johanna Lemon

Michael Faraday was born on the 22nd of September in 1791 as the son of a common blacksmith. Despite his humble origins in Newington Butts, England, he would one day be regarded as having one of the finest intellectual minds in all of England. His wealth of knowledge stretched from studies in electromagnetism to chemistry to public sanitation—making him one of the most important and influential figures in 18th century London.

As the son of a blacksmith, Faraday was able to receive only a rudimentary primary education during his early years and at age fourteen he became apprenticed to a bookbinder. Faraday did not relinquish his passion for learning and continued his education by reading incessantly and teaching himself. His apprenticeship as a bookbinder gave him unfettered access to a great many volumes that were being published at the time. Faraday used this access to enhance his knowledge of science to the point where it became his passion.

In 1812, Faraday began attending lectures given by prominent visiting scientists. One of these scientists was the English chemist William Davy. After one particularly captivating lecture, Faraday sent Davy three hundred pages of notes that he had recorded while listening. Davy, impressed by Faraday’s dedication, decided to employ him as a secretary and later an assistant. Faraday then travelled with Davy but due to perceived class differences, was often treated as an outsider. More than once, Faraday’s ill treatment caused him to consider abandoning Davy and the scientific community altogether.

Faraday persevered and soon became regarded as a true intellectual and a pioneer for modern science. For the most part, his studies involved investigating the newfound properties of electricity yet he was also highly invested in the works for the Crown. His expertise was called upon during Royal inquiries that delved into issues like mine explosions, the impacts of industrialisation, and what we would consider today to be matters of public and environmental sanitation. One such environmental debate championed by Faraday regarded the polluted state of the River Thames.

Faraday was one of the first people to recognize the deplorable condition of the Thames—which was at the time being used as both as a communal dumping ground for all of London and a source for the city’s drinking water. Faraday’s disgust with the polluted waterway led him to conduct a set of experiments that would allow him to test the overall quality of the water. What he found confirmed his suspicions that the Thames was nothing more than an “opaque pale brown fluid” and a “fermenting sewer” that was running through the heart of London. In his most famous experiment regarding the Thames, Faraday tore up pieces of white paper, briefly moistened them, and then dropped them into the water at several different piers. On each occasion he observed, “before they had sunk an inch below the surface they were indistinguishable, though the sun shone brightly at the time.”

Faraday soon collated his findings and published them in a letter, which he sent to both Parliament and to The Times newspaper in London. Parliament generally ignored his findings—a mistake that would cost them eventually—but it was the public that paid him the most attention. The letter was published in 1855 and soon enough Punch magazine drew up an image of Faraday handing his findings to a grotesque and putrid imagination of Father Thames. This image has forever been associated with Faraday’s attempts to cleanse the fetid water.

Faraday’s warning that the Thames needed to be purified—and soon—was not so much a suggestion as it was a prophetic warning. For Faraday cautioned: “if we neglect this subject [then]… a hot season [will] give us sad proof of the folly of our carelessness.” Only three years later, Faraday’s prediction came true and London underwent a disastrously hot summer, causing the pungent Thames to boil in the sweltering heat. As a result, the steaming sewage covered all of London in a hazy and repulsive odour. Not even the wealthy or most influential members of the government were immune to what became known as the Great Stink.

Faraday’s scientific justifications, the putridity of the Great Stink, and a terrible outbreak of cholera, all eventually led Parliament to take drastic action against the poisoned Thames. They soon ratified the building of the Victoria Embankments and also sanctioned the creation of an entirely new sewer system so that the Thames would no longer be used as the communal rubbish bin. Although it took several painstaking years, the Thames was finally restored to a more palatable condition.

Faraday continued to perform acts and services for the Crown as well as to expand and share his love of learning. In 1832 he was granted an honorary degree from the University of Oxford—a degree that he was previously denied due to his lack of social standing. Later in life, Faraday twice rejected an offer of knighthood and also refused to accept the position of President at the Royal Society for his contributions to science. He was, however, accepted as a member of both the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and the French Academy of Sciences. His knowledge and life of service was also called upon during the Crimean War. Faraday was asked to help develop methods of chemical warfare to be used in battle yet he refused, citing ethical oppositions.

Michael Faraday died in 1867 at the age of seventy-five; he had previously been offered internment in Westminster Abbey but had graciously refused. He is instead buried in Highgate Cemetery in North London, although a plaque dedicated to him does indeed exist in Westminster and is positioned beneath the grave of Sir Isaac Newton. Faraday and his wife, Sarah Barnard, did not have any children.