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Chemist John Dalton is credited with pioneering modern atomic theory. He was also the first to study color blindness.
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In 1810 Dalton published an appendix to A New System of Chemical Philosophy. In it he elaborated on some of the practical details of his theory: that the atoms within a given element are all exactly the same size and weight,
while the atoms of different elements look—and are—different from one other. Dalton eventually composed a table listing the atomic weights of all known elements.
His atomic theories were quickly adopted by the scientific community at large with few objections. "Dalton made atoms scientifically useful," asserted Rajkumari Williamson Jones, a science historian at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology. Nobel Laureate Professor Sir Harry Kroto, noted for co-discovering spherical carbon fullerenes, identified the revolutionary impact of Dalton's discoveries on the field of chemistry: "The crucial step was to write down elements in terms of their atoms...I don't know how they could do chemistry beforehand, it didn't make any sense."
From 1817 to the day he died, Dalton served as president of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical society, the organization that first granted him access to a laboratory. A practitioner of Quaker modesty, he resisted public recognition; in 1822 he turned down elected membership to the Royal Society. In 1832 he did, however, begrudgingly accept an honorary Doctorate of Science degree from the prestigious Oxford University. Ironically, his graduation gown was red, a color he could not see. Fortunately for him, his color blindness was a convenient excuse for him to override the Quaker rule forbidding its subscribers to wear red.
In 1833 the government granted him a pension, which was doubled in 1836. Dalton was offered another degree, this time a Doctorate of Laws, by Edinburgh University in 1834. As if those honors were insufficient tribute to the revolutionary chemist, in London, a statue was erected in Dalton's honor--also in 1834. "Dalton was very much an icon for Manchester," said Rajkumari Williams Jones. "He is probably the only scientist who got a statue in his lifetime."
In his later life, Dalton continued to teach and lecture at universities throughout the United Kingdom, although it is said that the scientist was an awkward lecturer with a gruff and jarring voice. Throughout his lifetime, Dalton managed to maintain his nearly impeccable reputation as a devout Quaker. He lived a humble, uncomplicated life focusing on his fascination with science, and never married.
In 1837 Dalton had a stroke. He had trouble with his speech for the next year.
After suffering a second stroke, Dalton died quietly on the evening of July 26, 1844, at his home in Manchester, England. He was provided a civic funeral and granted full honors. A reported 40,000 people attended the procession, honoring his contributions to science, manufacturing and the nation's commerce.
By finding a way to "weigh atoms," John Dalton's research not only changed the face of chemistry but also initiated its progression into a modern science.
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