Sir James Murray

Inventor of Milk of Magnesia and unsung pioneer of artificial fertiliser

Born in Derry, James Murray was educated in Edinburgh and Dublin. He set up a medical practice in Belfast in 1808. Exploring the therapeutic uses of magnesium carbonate, Murray patented a production process for ‘fluid magnesia’, a mild laxative and antacid, and set up a factory in Belfast to produce the medicine commercially.

By-products of the process included sodium and potassium bicarbonates and silicates, which when treated with sulphuric acid could be used as an artificial fertiliser. Murray conducted trials in 1817 and continued to develop and produce synthetic fertilisers.

Murray was Ireland’s first Inspector of Anatomy following the passage of the 1832 Anatomy Act, which legalised the supply of cadavers to teaching hospitals and ended the practice of body snatching. He died in Dublin in December 1871.

Further reading:

Dictionary of Ulster Biography (1993) by Kate Newman; A Dictionary of Irish Biography (1978) by Henry Boylan; ‘Ireland’s early chemical industry’ by PE Childs, in Chemistry in Action vol 55 (1993); Northern Ireland Scientists and Inventors (1993) by W Garvin and D O’Rawe.