Matthew Carey Lea was born to Isaac and Frances Carey Lea in Philadelphia on August 18, 1823. An old Quaker family, the Leas accompanied fellow Quaker William Penn to America in 1700. His father was a naturalist and publisher and his mother was an important political writer, but their frail young son saw little of the outside world in his early years. His delicate medical condition prohibited public schooling, and his education was placed into the accomplished hands of private home tutors. M. Carey studied along side his brother Henry Charles Lea in the early years, who was later regarded in the late nineteenth century as one of greatest scientific historians. After receiving his legal degree in 1847, continued health problems prevented Mr. Lea from pursuing a career in law.
Following a rejuvenating trip to Europe, he began working in Professor James C. Booth's laboratory, and Mr. Lea's fascination with scientific research continued in his own home laboratory in the Philadelphia suburb of Chestnut Hill. He married his cousin, a young widow named Elizabeth Lea Jaudon on July 14, 1852, and the couple had a son, George Henry Lea. After his wife's death, he married Eva Lovering, the daughter of a Cambridge, Massachusetts professor. Professionally, Mr. Lea became fascinated with chemistry as it pertained to the art of photography. He published the landmark Manual of Photography in 1868, which is still in print.
In the 1880s, Mr. Lea began experimenting with what he dubbed 'photo-salts,' first writing about silver haloids and their coloring changes when combined with certain chemicals in 1885. He noted how the silver salt and coloring phenomenon was similar to the lake formations aluminum oxide undergoes in a similar process. Four years' later, he made the discovery for which he is most famous - that silver can exist in three allotropic states that are light sensitive. The first state is allotropic silver proper, which may be either soluble or insoluble in water, can have almost any color but its insoluble variation always displays characteristics of plasticity. The intermediate second state may be either yellow or green in color, exhibits metallic characteristics, and never displays plasticity or notable chemical differences. The third state is silver. While his allotropic silver discoveries received universal critical acclaim at the time, technical and scientific advances have disproven the validity of many of Mr. Lea's conclusions.
His ongoing health problems made an active lifestyle impossible, and Mr. Lea was reduced to an ascetic existence, going out little and receiving few visitors. In his early manhood he experienced an accident in his laborotory which damaged one eye requiring its removal in later years. However, due to his intellect and means, Mr. Lea was able to become associated with a few scientific organizations, and his primary involvement was with the chemistry section of Philadelphia's Franklin Institute. He was also elected to membership in the National Academy of Sciences in 1892 where he published fifty-four substantial papers. M. Carey Lea was a prolific writer. He authored numerous articles that appeared in all of the major photographic trade magazines including the British Journal, Amateur photographer, photographic news, and the list goes on.
His health further declined after prostate surgery, and seventy-three-year-old Matthew Carey Lea died at his Chestnut Hill home on March 15, 1897. Not surprisingly, he bequeathed his books and scientific instruments to the Franklin Institute. Despite the subsequent critical backlash over his findings, his groundbreaking research has nevertheless earned Mr. Lea an indisputable reputation as the founder of photochemistry.
1897 The American Journal of Science, Vol. CLIIL (New Haven, CT: Tuttle, Morehouse, & Taylor Press), p. 428.
2003 Bulletin for the History of Chemistry (Cincinnati, OH : Division in collaboration with the Oesper Collection in the History of Chemistry of the University of Cincinnati, and with assistance from the Beckman Center for the History of Chemistry), pp. 26-34.
1905 National Academy of Sciences Biographical Memoirs, Vol. V (Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences), pp. 155-208.
1917 The Nature of Solution (New York: D. Van Nostrand Company), p. 230.
Copyright © 2002 - 2019 Historic Camera