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Prout, William

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[prowt] (1785–1850) British physician and chemist: proposed that the hydrogen atom is ‘primary matter’.

Like many chemists of his time, Prout was trained in medicine and, like most English physicians of his century, he studied in Scotland, qualifying at Edinburgh in 1811. He began his medical practice in London, and from 1813 he also researched and gave lectures on ‘animal chemistry’. He is best known for Prout’s hypothesis, which appeared anonymously in 1815. This suggested that (1) the relative atomic masses of all elements are exact multiples of that of hydrogen and (2) that hydrogen is a primary substance or ‘first matter’.

The idea stimulated analytical work, which showed that Prout was wrong; for example chlorine has an atomic mass close to 35.5 times that of hydrogen. Nevertheless, over a century later, work on isotopes revealed a real basis for Prout’s idea; and in modern terms the hydrogen nucleus (the proton) is a kind of primary substance, as indicated by its name, which also recalls Prout’s.

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