Henry Baker, FRS (1698—1774) was an interesting person. His father, a Clerk in Chancery, died when he was young, and he was largely brought up by his grandmother. He was apprenticed as a bookseller, later declaring his apprenticeship ‘as agreeable a Part of Life as any I have ever known’. Not that he became a bookseller. At the end of his apprenticeship, he went off to visit some relatives and ended up staying for nine years. What caught his interest was the 8-year-old daughter of his host, John Forster, who had been born deaf. Baker undertook to teach Jane and her two younger siblings, also born deaf, to read, write and lip-read, a task in which he was successful and instructing the deaf became his main source of income. He charged high prices and a lucrative practice. He also swore his pupils to secrecy and never revealed the details of his procedure, although it was doubtless based on that devised by the mathematician John Wallis.
It was presumably through a shared interest in the education of the deaf that Baker met Daniel Defoe, whose youngest daughter Sophia he married. They had two sons. The elder, and more colorful one, David Erskine Baker translated Voltaire’s Metaphysics of Sir Isaac Newton into English when only seventeen, was trained as an engineer on account of his mathematical skill, and joined a troupe of travelling players. His brother Henry became a lawyer.
In his youth Baker wrote poetry. Together with Defoe he founded the Universal Spectator, and in the early 1740s he got interested in microscopes. His book on microscopes, about which we will write in a separate post, was much more successful than Benjamin Martin’s Micrographia Nova, selling out a first edition of 1000 copies in only a few months. Although primarily a popularizer rather than a researcher, he used the microscope to study both crystal growth and polyps, earning him a Fellowship in the Royal Society in 1741, and its Copley Medal in 1744.
Baker was an inveterate organizer, recorder and committee member, clearly relishing the organizational tasks involved with the Royal Society, the Society of Arts, the Society of Antiquaries, and the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. With these organizations he was intersecting Kirby’s orbit as Kirby was a member of these groups, too.
Most of the information in this post comes from the delightful article on Henry Baker by Gerard L’Estrange Turner.
Turner, G.L’E, 1974. ‘Henry Baker, F.R.S.: Founder of the Bakerian Lecture’. Notes Rec. R. Soc. Lond. October 1, 1974 29 1 53-79.