Science in the Scottish Enlightenment
Science in the Scottish Enlightenment

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Science in the Scottish Enlightenment

3 The Enlightenment milieu

3.1 Clubs and societies

The milieu was urban. It was not a business of isolated individuals working in country estates, or of secluded academics, cloistered within unworldly universities. The scene was convivial, social. The focus was Edinburgh, although Glasgow and Aberdeen were active too. Cities were small. Even the capital was intimate enough for its intelligentsia to be able to meet regularly and casually. ‘Here I stand, at what is called the Cross of Edinburgh’, wrote an excited visitor, ‘and within a few minutes take fifty men of genius by the hand’ (quoted in Daiches, 1986, p. 1).

Perhaps the most characteristic expression of the conviviality and energy of the place was the club, or the society. Dozens of them were formed during the century, some short-lived dining and drinking clubs, some maturing into august scientific and medical bodies that still exist. Some, like the Poker Club (concerned with poking up sluggish intellectual fires, not card games), the Oyster Club or the Friday Club, at first sight seem frivolous – excuses, perhaps, for male claret-swilling – but behind the grandiloquence, serious issues were debated. The Oyster Club, for example, had among its founders the economist Adam Smith, the chemist Joseph Black and the geologist James Hutton – all pioneers in their fields and indebted to each other's criticism, help and stimulus.

Two societies can be singled out as being of fundamental importance in the discussion and dissemination of science. In 1731, the professors of medicine at Edinburgh founded the Medical Society of Edinburgh. The driving force was Alexander Monro, the first in a dynasty of three generations of Alexander Monros (known as primus, secundus and tertius – first, second and third) who dominated Edinburgh medicine. The Society published medical research and soon established for itself a reputation in European medicine.

When Alexander Monro primus fell ill, Colin McLaurin, an Edinburgh University mathematician and Newtonian, broadened the Society's scope to include all ‘philosophical’ topics (in the eighteenth-century sense), and the name changed to the Philosophical Society. The membership is a rollcall of the Scottish Enlightenment: McLaurin himself, Joseph Black, James Hutton, Adam Smith, David Hume, the chemist and doctor William Cullen, and the philosopher Dugald Stewart. The Society flourished from 1737 until 1783. Within its boundaries, smaller, special-interest groups, like the Newtonian Club, operated. The Society as a whole achieved the highest possible status when it was given a royal charter in 1783, to emerge as the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the premier scientific society of the country.

Medicine did not fall by the wayside when the Philosophical Society broadened its scope. A student medical society, which met first in 1734, grew, within forty years, into the Royal Medical Society, which was chartered in 1778. And along the way, it developed the full infrastructure of a lively scientific academy – premises, a library, a museum, a laboratory, prizes, publications.

The historian Roger Emerson, who has made extensive studies of Scottish science, has assembled a useful identikit picture of a member of an Edinburgh Society. It brings out clearly the social background and the wide-ranging commercial and intellectual interests of the men who founded the clubs and societies. Emerson's picture is of a typical member of the Philosophical Society, in 1739: such a member

was an active professional man from the landed gentry who was politically involved and who held a patronage post which enhanced an income not wholly derived from rents. Tied to Edinburgh and to Scotland by economic interests, various responsibilities, language, sentiment, and perhaps by his training in Scots law, he was a place seeker whose prospects outside Scotland were limited but within the kingdom reasonably good. Well educated and usually the beneficiary of foreign travels, he was aware of the backwardness and provincialism of his country, and patriotic enough to wish to remedy it. Relying on provincial institutions for his status and income, he sought to raise both through improvements which would modernize the country, and allow it and him to play greater roles in the world. His enlightenment, and the work of his academy, would be practical, non-literary, career-furthering and conservative of his position as a member of an economic, social, and intellectual elite dominating the kingdom's institutions.

(Emerson, 1979, p. 173)

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