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John William Draper (May 5, 1811 – January 4, 1882) was an American (English-born) scientist, philosopher, physician, chemist, historian and photographer. He is credited with producing the first clear photograph of a female face (1839–40) and the first detailed photograph of the Moon (1840). He was also the first president of the American Chemical Society (1876–77) and a founder of the New York University School of Medicine. One of Draper’s books, History of the Conflict between Religion and Science, received worldwide recognition and was translated into several languages, but was banned by the Catholic Church. His son, Henry Draper, and his granddaughter, Antonia Maury, were astronomers, and his eldest son, John Christopher Draper, was a chemist.
John William Draper was born May 5, 1811 in St. Helens, Merseyside, England to John Christopher Draper, a Wesleyan clergyman and Sarah (Ripley) Draper. He also had three sisters, Dorothy Catherine (August 6, 1807 – December 10, 1901), Elizabeth Johnson, and Sarah Ripley. On June 23, he was baptized by the Wesleyan minister Jabez Bunting. His father often needed to move the family due to serving various congregations throughout England. John Wm. Draper was home tutored until 1822, when he entered Woodhouse Grove School. He returned to home instruction (1826) prior to entering University College London in 1829.
On September 13, 1831, John William Draper married Antonia Coetana de Paiva Pereira Gardner (c. 1814–1870), the daughter of Daniel Gardner, a court physician to John VI of Portugal and Charlotte of Spain. Antonia was born in Brazil after the royal family fled Portugal with Napoleon‘s invasion. There is dispute as to the identity of Antonia’s mother. Around 1830, she was sent with her brother Daniel to live with their aunt in London.
In 1832, the family settled in Mecklenburg County, Virginia 7½ miles (12 km) east (on Virginia State Route 47) from Christiansville (now Chase City). Although he arrived too late to obtain the prospective teaching position, John William established a laboratory in Christiansville. Here he conducted experiments and published eight papers before entering medical school. His sister, Dorothy Catharine Draper provided finances through teaching drawing and painting for his medical education. In March 1836, he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. That same year, he began teaching at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia.
In 1837, he took an appointment at New York University; he was elected professor of chemistry and botany the next year. He was a professor in its school of medicine from 1840 to 1850, president of that school from 1850 to 1873, and professor of chemistry until 1881. He was a founder of the New York University Medical School.
Draper did important research in photochemistry, made portrait photography possible by his improvements (1839) on Louis Daguerre’s process, and published a textbook on Chemistry (1846), textbook on Natural Philosophy (1847), textbook on Physiology (1866), and Scientific Memoirs (1878) on radiant energy.
In 1839–1840, Draper produced clear photographs, which at that time were regarded as the first life photographs of a human face, but more likely were the first clear photographs of a female face. Draper took a series of pictures, in with 65-second exposure by sunlight, and the first ones were of his female assistant. Her face was covered with a thin layer of flour to increase contrast, and those photos were not preserved. Draper also photographed his sister, Dorothy Catherine Draper, and one of those pictures (see image) became known to the public via the letter which Draper sent to John Herschel in 1840. Several copies were made of this picture in the 19th century, and the photograph attached with Draper’s letter was also likely a copy made by Draper himself.
In 1840 Draper became the first person to produce photographs of an astronomical object, the Moon, considered the first astrophotographs. In 1843 he made daguerreotypes which showed new features on the moon in the visible spectrum. In 1850 he was making photo-micrographs and engaged his then teenage son, Henry, into their production.
Draper developed the proposition in 1842 that only light rays that are absorbed can produce chemical change. It came to be known as the Grotthuss–Draper law when his name was teamed with a prior but apparently unknown promulgator Theodor Grotthuss of the same idea in 1817.
On Saturday 30 May the 1860 Oxford evolution debate featured Draper’s lecture on his paper “On the Intellectual Development of Europe, considered with reference to the views of Mr. Darwin and others, that the progression of organisms is determined by law.” Draper’s presentation was an early example of applying a Darwinian metaphor of adaptation and environment to social and political studies, but was thought to be long and boring. The hall was crowded to hear Bishop Samuel Wilberforce‘s views on Charles Darwin‘s recent publication of On the Origin of Species, and the occasion was a historically significant part of the reaction to Darwin’s theory due to reports of Thomas Henry Huxley‘s response to Wilberforce.
Contributions to the discipline of history: Draper is well known also as the author of The History of the Intellectual Development of Europe (1862), applying the methods of physical science to history, a History of the American Civil War (3 vols., 1867–1870), and a History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874). The last book listed is among the most influential works on the conflict thesis, which takes its name from Draper’s title.
He died on January 4, 1882 at his home in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York at the age of 70. The funeral was held at St Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery in New York City. He was buried in Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York.
In 1976, New York University founded the John W. Draper Interdisciplinary Master’s Program in Humanities and Social Thought (Draper Program) in honour of his life-long commitment to interdisciplinary study.
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