Christopher White

Old Ashmolean 1685

Christopher White (c.1650-1695?) was inducted into chemistry at a young age. White’s father acted as an assistant to Peter Stahl, a German alchemist, when he gave an experimental chemistry course in Oxford. White helped his father on that course and then remained working as a trainee assistant to Stahl for three years. He then worked for the famous Robert Boyle in Oxford and London for a further 10 years.

Returning on Oxford in 1676 White set up a successful business making chemical medicines and preparations. At that time the University of Oxford was looking to invest in scientific facilities. So, when the Elias Ashmole agreed to donate his collection of rarities to the university, part of the deal was that a chemical laboratory would be set up in the basement of the museum, The Ashmolean. It would be the first purpose built university laboratory in the country. White was chosen to help design, and subsequently run, the laboratory, its apparatus and furnaces. The writer Edward Chamberlayne described the laboratory and its contents as, “perchance one of the most beautiful and useful in the World, furnished with all sorts of Furnaces, and all other necessary Materials in order to use and practise.”

Old Ashmolean 1685

White was referred to as ‘the operator’ in some writings from this time; however, he was also given the relatively new title ‘chemist’ meaning “chemical scientist, person versed in chemistry”. White was a skillful and industrious man taking on many roles including: apothecary, alchemist, experimenter, teacher, and demonstrator. However, his main duty was demonstrating experiments as part of lecture courses run by Robert Plot and later Edward Hannes. While White did receive a small wage for his work he was also allowed to keep his business going from the laboratory acting as a public dispensary keeping a storeroom of chemical preparations.

Before the 17th century laboratories had been private enterprises generally run out of peoples homes, more like glorified kitchens than laboratories. Even White’s purpose built laboratory would be hardly recognizable to us – we would more likely describe it as a workshop or foundry with furnaces around the walls and a large table in the middle on which the students took notes. The assistants that filled pre-17th century laboratories were generally servants of the house and certainly not professional scientists. Even by the standards of the mid-17th century White was unusual. He not only ran one of the first true chemical laboratories in the world but his unique role as ‘chemist’ very likely made him the first professional laboratory technician.

No record of White’s death has survived but it is though that he died sometime around 1695 and was survived by a wife, two sons, and two daughters.

Further reading

I could find very little information about Christopher White. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography carries an excellent biography of him which has been my primary source of information. The quote from Chamberlayne is from the Oxford Museum of the History of Science. White’s laboratory would have likely looked something like this laboratory at the University Altdorf in Germany. I have been unable to find an image of Christopher White.

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