Person NameBrewster; Sir; David (1781-1867); natural philosopher
Epithetnatural philosopher
ActivityDavid Brewster was born in Jedburgh in 1781, the son of the rector of the local grammar school. He was the second of four sons, all of marked intelligence. He received his first informal tuition in science locally, and in 1793 entered Edinburgh University, intending a career in the Church. In 1799 he took up a post as tutor to a family in Peeblesshire and remained there until he was licenced to preach in 1804: meanwhile he had taken up the editorship of the Edinburgh Magazine in 1802. He preached in Edinburgh and Leith and met with some favour, but found the experience traumatic and abandoned the idea of a parish. He took up another tutoring post, this time in Dumfriesshire, and continued to carry out the scientific experiments and observations he had begun in boyhood. In 1807 he took up the post of editor of the Edinburgh Encyclopaedia, a post he held for twenty-two years. He failed in applications for several university posts. In 1809 he visited London, and in 1810 married Juliet, daughter of James ‘Ossian’ Macpherson. He began to publish scientific papers but overworked and took a trip on the continent to rest. There he met and befriended European scientist such as Biot and Prevost. In 1815 he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society and in the following years was awarded several medals, British and French. He wrote extensively and continued to edit the Edinburgh Magazine, later known as the Edinburgh Philosophical Journal and then as the Edinburgh Journal of Science. In 1821 he helped to found the Royal Scottish Society of Arts. A polymath, he was particularly interested in optics and was fascinated by the beginnings of photography. Knighted in 1831, he was appointed Principal of United College, St. Andrews, in 1838, which gave him a reasonable income: however, he was almost ejected from the post when he joined the Free Church in 1843. His wife died after a long illness in 1850, but he continued to work. He was appointed Vice Chancellor of Edinburgh University in 1860 and President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1864. He died in 1867.
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