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John Playfair


1748 - 1819

Geologist, physicist and mathematician. Born in Benvie, Playfair studied at St. Andrews. Having failed to gain professorships at Aberdeen and St. Andrews he became a parish minister.

However he was offered the Chair of Mathematics at the University of Edinburgh in 1785 and later moved to the Chair of Natural Philosophy (1805), which he held until his death. He is perhaps best known for his work in geomorphology, realising that large rock could be transported as part of the process of glaciation, and was regarded by his students as an excellent teacher. Playfair popularised the the work of James Hutton (1726-97) with his publication Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of The Earth (1802). Playfair enthusiastically supported the extension of the Observatory on Edinburgh's Calton Hill and would undoubtedly have been Astronomer Royal for Scotland had the position existed when he was alive.

Talbot Rice (1954) says:


"The wide learning, the calm intellect and the clear thought, so apparent in all his writings, also marked his lectures. He was, according to one of his many illustrious pupils, 'a charming teacher, so simple, unaffected and sincere in manner, so chaste in style, so clear in demonstration'. By consolidating the learning of past generations and collating the discoveries and theories of his own time, he gave a comprehensive and unified presentation of the subjects he professed and thus laid the basis for future constructive researches in the fields of mathematics and natural philosophy."

Playfair died at Burntisland in Fife and is remembered by a memorial next to the City Observatory, created by his nephew William (1789 - 1857).


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