Sir Kenelm Digby, 1603-1665

Portrait

Biographical note

English courtier and diplomat. He was also a highly reputed natural philosopher. Digby was regarded as an eccentric by contemporaries, partly because of his effusive personality, and partly because of his interests in scientific matters. He spent enormous time and effort in the pursuits of astrology, and alchemy which he studied in the 1630s. In 1644 he published together two major philosophical treatises, The Nature of Bodies and On the Immortality of Reasonable Souls. These Two Treatises were his major natural-philosophical works, and showed a combination of Aristotelianism and atomism.

He was in touch with the leading intellectuals of the time, and was highly regarded by them; he was a founding member of the Royal Society and a member of its governing council from 1662 to 1663. His Discourse Concerning the Vegetation of Plants (1661) proved controversial among the Royal Society's members. He is credited with being the first person to note the importance of "vital air," or oxygen, to the sustenance of plants.

Digby is known for the publication of a cookbook, The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Knight Opened, but it was actually published by a close servant, from his notes, in 1669, several years after his death. It is currently considered an excellent source of period recipes, particularly for beverages such as mead.

Digby is also considered the father of the modern wine bottle. During the 1630s, Digby owned a glassworks and manufactured wine bottles which were globular in shape with a high, tapered neck, a collar, and a punt. His manufacturing technique involved a coal furnace, made hotter than usual by the inclusion of a wind tunnel, and a higher ratio of sand to potash and lime than was customary. Digby's technique produced wine bottles which were stronger and more stable than most of their day, and which, due to their dark color protected the contents from light.

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