William Gregor – scientist, mineralogist, Clergyman, discoverer of titanium

William Gregor

Born on Christmas Day in 1761, William Gregor was the son of Francis Gregor and Mary Copley of Trewarthenick Estate near Tregony in Cornwall. He studied in Bristol Grammar School, where he first developed his interest in the field of chemistry. He underwent private tutoring and, 2 years later, he entered St. John's College in Cambridge. He graduated with his Bachelor of Arts in 1784 and Master of Arts in 1787. He later became ordained in the Church of England, hence becoming a clergyman and vicar of St. Mary's Church, Diptford. In 1790, he married Charlotte Anne Gwatkin and they had one daughter.

#Gregor became fascinated with Cornish minerals when he permanently moved to the rectory of Creed in Cornwall. This was the time when he began chemically analyzing the different minerals found in Cornwall. It was in 1791 that he was able to isolate calx, the residual left when a mineral combusts or is exposed to high heat, from an unknown metal. He named this metal ‘manaccanite’ since he got this mineral from the Manaccan Valley in Cornwall.

Later on, another scientist, Martin Heinrich Klaproth, discovered the same metal and named it titanium, believing it to be a new discovery. Gregor was later credited for the discovery, but the name titanium persisted and is the only name by which the metal is known today.

Titanium was named after the great titans, or giants, of Greek mythology. Titanium is usually found in igneous rocks, coal ash, plants, and even in the human body. It can also be found in bodies from outer space, such as meteorites, the sun and the moon.

Titanium is a popular alloy with other metals like iron, aluminum, and manganese. These alloys are often used for situations that require the ability to withstand extremes of temperature and lightweight strength. This has made it a popular metal alloy for industries like aerospace, automotive, medical prostheses and orthopedic implants, and dental instruments, among others. It is also resistant to corrosion from seawater, hence it can be used in desalination plants. The strong, lightweight alloy titanium can also be used in surgical procedures, since it is an element inert in the body. The two most significant properties of titanium are its corrosion resistance and the fact it has the highest strength-to-weight ratio of any known metal.

Throughout Gregor's life, he was not only a scientist and mineralogist, but also a pastor, musician, and etcher. He was an original member of the Royal Geological Society of Cornwall, founded in 1814. Aside from his earlier discovery, he also discovered titanium in the minerals corundum and tourmaline.

Gregor died of tuberculosis on June 11, 1817.

All the known elements in the world would not have been identified and distinguished from one another if not for the work and dedication of their respective discoverers. While not his primary occupation throughout life, William Gregor's fascination for minerals and chemistry led him to discover one of the most important elements on Earth.

Because of his discovery, people are benefiting from the many and varied uses of titanium.

Today, titanium is used in many applications as an alloy, from aerospace to auto manufacturing to medical.

This article has been kindly provided by Kernow Matters to Us and is the seventeenth in a series on Famous Folk of Kernow (Cornwall).