Reid's Early Years in Edinburgh

David Boswell Reid was the second son of Peter Reid, a distinguished physician and educational reformer. His older brother followed their father into the medical profession and it was therefore natural that David carried on the family tradition and studied medicine at Edinburgh University. In 1826 he became Senior President of the Royal Medical Society (this was the medical students society, founded in 1734). Two of his contemporaries are worthy of note, Charles Darwin studied medicine at Edinburgh from 1825 to 1827 and William Henry Duncan was also a fellow student. Duncan was to become the United Kingdom's first Medical Officer of Health when he was appointed to that position in Liverpool in 1847 at a time when Reid was actively engaged in that city at St George's Hall.

Reid's Chemistry Laboratory. [Click on thumbnail for larger image]

Reid received his Medical Diploma in 1830 and was made a Fellow of The Royal College of Physicians, Edinburgh in 1831, however, he had been appointed as assistant to Professor Thomas Hope in the Chemistry Department at Edinburgh University after Reid had, quite independently, started teaching practical chemistry the year before. Sometime between 1830 and 1833 Reid became involved with the Medical Charities of his native city and during this time became acutely aware of the inter-relationships between poor health, poor sanitation, poor hygiene and poor ventilation. He took it upon himself to enlighten the public mind on the removable causes of disease. He published a pamphlet entitled 'The Chemistry of Daily Life' in his quest to educate the population of over-crowded cities.

Reid petitioned the Town Council, which controlled the University, to set up a chair of practical chemistry but was unsuccessful so in 1833, after a disagreement with Hope, he had his own independent chemistry lecture and demonstration room constructed. A contemporary illustration (fig.2) shows how he had incorporated fires into the principal demonstration table. These fires were fed by air entering from above such that the smoke (and extracted fumes) travelled downwards and through ducts under the floor to reach the chimneys. He refers in detail in his book (1844) to the care he took to ensure good acoustics in his lecture/demonstration suite and to tests done in the presence of Earl Grey, Lord Brougham and others. He later constructed five adjoining test rooms for his investigations of ventilation and respiration. He used these rooms to try to establish the precise amount of air required for health and comfort with practical experiments on human guinea pigs. None of his notable predecessors, in the field of the study of the chemical properties of air or the relationship between freshness of air and disease, had done this.

In 1834 the British Association for the Advancement of Science held its Summer Meeting in Edinburgh and a number of the delegates visited Reid's laboratory and classroom to view his unique arrangements for heating, lighting and ventilation. Among this group were Members of both Houses of Parliament.

Reid's Later Years in the United States

Reid was recommended by James Buchanan (President from 1857), to Montgomery Meigs, an Army Engineer, who had, since 1853, been employed on The Capitol in Washington. The project was described as an extension to The Capitol but it was at this time that the dome was added and the legislative chambers, as they exist today, were constructed. The chambers were to be designed without windows and so light and air were to be supplied by artificial means.

Meigs records in his journal (see URL address in References) in January 1855 that he was aware of the system Reid had employed in the Houses of Parliament but at that stage he appears to be referring to the Temporary House of Commons because he dismisses the practicality of using chimney draft as a motive power for the air. Steam driven fans had been installed in Parliament for the New Houses in July 1851. He refers to the cost of Reid's system at the Houses of Parliament, but remarks that the cost (£220 000) must have included the cost of the Victoria Tower, which, although used for the ventilation was not built purely for that purpose. He must have been referring here to the New Houses but seems to have been unaware of the part played in the system by St Stephen's Tower (Big Ben).

In his entry for 16th April 1856, Meigs states that he 'had another visit from Dr Reid' but it is not clear from his journal when they first met. In February 1857, Reid gave three lectures at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington all attended by Meigs. They also spent another evening together, the same month, in Professor Henry's rooms at the Smithsonian where 'we had much talk about ventilation and sound'. Professor Joseph Henry was the first ever Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Michael Faraday had described him as the greatest US scientist since Benjamin Franklin. He had been called upon by the Vice-President to evaluate Meigs' plans for the acoustics, heating and ventilation of the new chamber of the House of representatives, but is probably best know for his research into electricity and magnetism and for the invention of the telegraph.

In the United States, Reid again showed concern for the well-being of his fellow man and published 'Ventilation in American Dwellings' (Reid, 1858), in which he strove to enlighten the general population, as well as those designing buildings, about the health benefits of good ventilation and good sanitation. An extensive introduction to this book, running to over 30 pages, was written by Elisha Harris, Physician in Chief at the quarantine hospital on Staten Island. In this introduction, Harris praises Reid, not only for his pioneering experiments in ventilation but also for his untiring efforts in attempting to raise awareness of the importance of the incorporation of proper arrangements for ventilation in domestic as well as public architecture. Harris says 'For more than a quarter of a century, in addition to important public services, he has, in promoting improved ventilation, been an earnest advocate and projector of measures for the more universal diffusion of scientific knowledge, and its application to the arts and affairs of daily life' (1858).

In his earlier book Reid himself reported that he had organised many courses on the chemistry of daily life to schoolmasters and young persons including one at Exeter Hall for a thousand teachers, which was sanctioned by no less a body than the Education Committee of the Privy Council. He had suggested that financial support should be given to 'enable missionary teachers to traverse the kingdom, and teach schoolmasters … the great elementary truths that bear on health and length of life' (1844).

Harris lists the leading points advocated by Reid for his system of ventilation and these appear to embody the thesis of this paper. They include 'The importance in all public buildings, of providing channels for the supply and discharge of air, entirely separate and apart from doors and windows' and more specifically 'the formation of extended arrangements for supplying air from the purest accessible source; for excluding or covering local impurities; for cooling, drying and moistening the air; and for the entire and absolute isolation of the warming and ventilating power, so as to permit the latter to be used in full force in warm weather' (1858). He is defining air-conditioning here just as we might define it today, the only difference being that Reid termed it 'Systematic Ventilation'.

Reid was at one stage Professor of Physiology and Hygiene at the University of Wisconsin and eventually became one of the Medical Inspectors of the United States Sanitary Commission. He was appointed Inspector of Military Hospitals in 1863 but was suddenly taken ill and died before he could carry out any of his duties.

Conclusion

What began with Reid as a fascination with the chemical make-up of fresh air and of expelled air, developed into a vocation to improve conditions in large public buildings as well as dwellings.

He provided a means of calculating the amount of fresh air needed according to occupancy, based on extensive experimentation and measurement. He demonstrated that humidification of the air was essential in winter for comfort. His recommendation was that there should not be a wet-bulb depression of more than about 4oF (about 2.2oC) in habitable spaces.

Harris reports (1858) that noticeable improvements in health of patients was demonstrated in any hospital where Reid's system was adopted. He made significant What began with Reid as a fascination with the chemical make-up of fresh air and of expelled air, developed into a vocation to improve conditions in large public buildings as well as dwellings.

He provided a means of calculating the amount of fresh air needed according to occupancy, based on extensive experimentation and measurement. He demonstrated that humidification of the air was essential in winter for comfort. His recommendation was that there should not be a wet-bulb depression of more than about 4oF (about 2.2oC) in habitable spaces.

Harris reports (1858) that noticeable improvements in health of patients was demonstrated in any hospital where Reid's system was adopted. He made significant

Bibliography

Manuscript Reid, D.B. 1855. “Diagrams of the Ventilation of St George's Hall and the New Assize Courts, Liverpool”. Liverpool City Record Office.

Cooke, R. 1987. “The Palace of Westminster : Houses of Parliament”, London : MacMillan.

MacKenzie, W. 1863. “On the Mechanical Ventilation and Warming of St George's Hall, Liverpool”, Proceedings I Mech E 1863, 194-208.

Reid, D.B. 1837. “Brief Outline Illustrations of the Alterations in the House of Commons”, London (publisher not known).

Reid, D.B. 1844. “Illustrations of the Theory and Practice of Ventilation”, London : Longmans.

Reid, D.B. 1858. “Ventilation of American Dwellings”, New York : Wiley (Harris, E. Introduction to the above).

The journal of Montgomery Meigs is available at www.access.gpo.gov.congress/senate/meigs


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Last modified 10 June 2009