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Pharmacy’s pioneering weatherman

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Luke Howard (Callie Jones)

A recent “Glow-worm” piece on the 1883 Krakatoa eruption mentioned the weirdly coloured skies produced globally by fine ash thrown up into the stratosphere (PJ, 16 August, p199). Exactly a century earlier, in 1783, similar skies were observed from Britain after major eruptions in Iceland and Japan.

Among those who witnessed the phenomenon was an 11-year-old future pharmacist called Luke Howard, who went on to maintain a lifelong interest in the sky.

After qualifying as a pharmacist, he went into partnership in 1796 with William Allen, who was later to be the first president of the Pharmaceutical Society.

According to Jacob Bell, writing in The Pharmaceutical Journal of 1 July 1864, it was Howard and Allen who “first brought science — such as it then was — into connection with the preparation of medicines in England”.

Howard concentrated on the manufacturing side of the partnership and, in 1807, he left to run his own business. In 1823, he pioneered the supply of quinine, using a new process for extracting it from cinchona bark, and this became the most profitable feature of his business. He was so successful as a manufacturer that when Allen and others founded the Society in 1841 he saw no need to join.

But Howard’s main claim to fame is his work on the weather, for which, although an amateur, he received a fellowship of the Royal Society in 1821 and has been acclaimed ever since as “the father of meteorology”.

Howard is best known for his system for classifying clouds, first proposed in a lecture to a scientific thinkers’ debating club set up by William Allen in 1796. At a meeting in 1802, Howard gave a paper in which he named the three main types of cloud as cumulus (Latin for heap), stratus (layered) and cirrus (curl of hair).

He later added nimbus (rain) as well as intermediate and compound modifications, such as cirrostratus and altocumulus.

Although the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck had earlier proposed a set of descriptive terms for clouds in French, it was Howard’s system, published in 1803, that was rapidly adopted around the world — perhaps partly because he cunningly used Latin, the international scientific language of the day.

Howard went on to make many other important observations. Commuting to and from his laboratory gave him plenty of opportunity to observe the weather in and around London and as a result he was the first to note that cities can affect the weather.

He identified “city fog” (smog) and also observed that the city centre was warmer at night than the surrounding countryside (a phenomenon now known as the urban heat island). His writings also show that he had a basic understanding of weather fronts, a concept that did not become well developed until the 1920s.

Howard died in 1864, aged 91, at his home in Tottenham. An English Heritage blue plaque now graces the wall of the house.

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From: Beyond pharmacy blog

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