Kent Scientists

Introduction – 'Kent's Contribution'

In 1972 the writer Richard Church published a book entitled ‘Kent’s Contribution’. He described its contents as ‘the life-stories of a few outstanding characters born in the county of Kent’ – a part of England he knew well and loved. Among these characters he included poets and peers, statesman and general, and just one whom we might today describe as a scientist. This was William Harvey, whose experiments led him to discover the circulation of the blood. He came of Kentish stock, was born in Folkestone in the east of the county, and was educated in Canterbury. Another scientist of the first rank, Charles Darwin, receives a passing mention in Church’s book. Though not born in Kent he lived and worked for forty years in Downe village in the north-west of the county.  

The County of Kent in 1820

 The North-West portion of the county, including Deptford, Greenwich and Woolwich, ceased to be part of Kent in 1889 with the creation of the County of London, and now forms the boroughs of Greenwich, Bromley and Bexley.

(Click on image to see a larger version)

Church's book concentrates on men and women whose names ‘survive the anonymity of time and death’, and Darwin and Harvey fully belong in such company. But this website is intended to shine light on some of the county’s less well-known figures, men and women who are not household names but nevertheless made significant contributions, focussing particularly on the fields of science, engineering and mathematics. All have Kentish connections, either through birth and upbringing or because they lived or worked in the county.  

They are an interesting and varied bunch of men and women. Among them we find a 17th century codebreaker, an early Tunbridge Wells preacher whose insights into statistics found new relevance in the digital age, an 18th century experimenter who suspended schoolboys from a wooden frame and ‘electrified’ them, a Victorian politician who kept ants’ nests in his study,  a botanist who became completely trapped in cobwebs and only escaped because she was carrying a nail file, the inventor of a steam-powered flying machine, a Nobel prize-winner described as ‘the father of particle physics’ … and many others.  

A note on terminology Although many of those mentioned on this website practised the scientific method, they were not all known as ‘scientists’. That word was only coined in the 1830s. Before then the usual term was ‘natural philosopher’ or simply ‘philosopher’. Charles Darwin for example was described as ship’s philosopher when he journeyed on the Beagle in the 1830s.  The term ‘engineer’ originally meant a person who devised and constructed siege engines for use in warfare, and later a constructor of harbours, drainage systems, canals, etc. The word developed its modern meaning around the start of the 19th century.

A note on the pictures Many but not all of the pictures on this site can be clicked on to see a larger verion.