Natural philosophy

The period of a little over fifty years between 1790 and 1843 saw a dramatic restructuring of the way in which knowledge of the natural world was created and received in Scotland. Science in the Scottish universities in 1790 was taught much as it had been for centuries; natural philosophy and mathematics formed part of the MA curriculum, while chemistry and natural history were adjuncts to the medical schools. Science in Scotland was still dominated by the great thinkers of Enlightenment Edinburgh, such as Joseph Black, John Robison and James Hutton. However, the next generation of Scottish men of science, many of whom had been pupils of Black and Robison, would preside over great changes, as the world of the late Scottish Enlightenment gave way to the Victorian age.

David Brewster by William Bewick, 1824

At the centre of these changes stands the figure of David Brewster  (1781-1868), avid experimentalist, scientific writer and editor, and champion of the power of the scientific imagination. Brewster started his career as a late-Enlightenment natural philosopher at the dawn of the nineteenth century and ended it as a venerable Victorian scientist in the 1860s. Throughout his life he was always a man of science, but he was also many other things. For much of his career he was Scotland’s leading scientific writer, editor and populariser. Science books and lectures aimed at a non-specialist audience had existed in the late eighteenth century, but the early decades of the new century saw a dramatic growth in the market for books and journals aimed at a new and growing middle-class readership. As a young natural philosopher with strong literary inclinations and a colourful, dramatic prose style, Brewster was well placed to take advantage of this surge of interest. During his long career he was to be the editor of, among other publications, the Edinburgh Encyclopaedia, the Edinburgh Philosophical Journal and the Edinburgh Journal of Science, and the author of numerous popular books on science, as well as countless articles and reviews.

Brewster was an active member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and inspired the foundation of both the Royal Scottish Society of Arts and the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Without a university chair before becoming Principal of the University of St Andrews in 1838, Brewster astutely used the nascent institutions of Scottish and British science to build a career as a scientific administrator, holding key roles in many of the leading scientific institutions of his time. His ambitions often led him into conflict with powerful players in the scientific establishment and his career was not without conflict and drama. An ardent supporter of the Evangelical Party of the Church of Scotland, he was also deeply embroiled in the turbulent church politics of his country, which were to culminate in the Disruption of 1843, when half the minsters of the established Church broke away to form the Free Church.

The many roles played by Brewster during his long life make him the perfect lens through which to view the dramatic changes that took place in Scottish scientific culture in the decades that followed the end of the Scottish Enlightenment. This strand will explore themes of change and continuity across this eventful period and throw new light on those crucial decades in which the institutional structures and disciplinary boundaries of science were coming to resemble those we can still recognise today.