Science in the Scottish Enlightenment
Science in the Scottish Enlightenment

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Science in the Scottish Enlightenment

3.4 The role of the Edinburgh Town Council

This route incidentally leads us to another important feature of the movement, namely the role of the Edinburgh Town Council and its provosts. (The English equivalent would be a lord mayor.) Throughout the eighteenth century, the Town Council, with a policy of enlightened self-interest, promoted the city by sponsoring or patronising its academic, medical and scientific life. The Council regarded the city's university, infirmary and medical school as institutions which, if given enough prestige, would not only stop the drift of Scottish students and their fees to foreign universities – especially to Leiden for medical training – but also reverse the flow and attract fee-paying students to Edinburgh from across Europe and America. Accordingly, it took an active role in the appointment of professors who would bring fame. As early as 1713, the Council minuted its reasons for appointing James Crawford to the chair of chemistry at the university: the appointment was made

… particularly considering that through the want of professors of physick and chymistry in this Kingdome the youth who have applyed themselves to study have been necessitat to travel and remain abroad a considerable time for their education to the great prejudice of the nation by the necessary charges occasioned thereby …

(quoted in Christie, 1974, pp. 127–8)

Another such appointment was that of Colin McLaurin, the mathematician and Newtonian, to the chair of mathematics in 1725. McLaurin had formerly been at Marischal College, Aberdeen, where he had taken a rather high-handed view of his teaching duties. Somewhat oddly, this did not count against him when he was recruited for Edinburgh. What counted for him was a growing European reputation: a rising star could be caught. The tempting modern analogy is with those town councils who invest in their cities' football teams. The perhaps more sober conclusion of the historian who has investigated this episode is that McLaurin's appointment guaranteed that ‘the University of Edinburgh became an acknowledged centre for the diffusion of Newtonian mathematics, astronomy, and natural philosophy by the most gifted and accomplished British disciple of his generation’ (Morrell, 1974, p. 86).

McLaurin also mended his lackadaisical attitude to lecturing, and taught courses which included surveying and gunnery: his classes were not just for aspiring young mathematicians; they were also to serve the practical needs of students who intended to become engineers and army officers (Christie, 1974, p. 125). The architect Robert Adam, it will be recalled, also attended McLaurin's classes.

Regenting (the system of low-grade generalist teaching) came to an end in Scottish universities in the early decades of the eighteenth century, opening the way to the endowment of specialist professorships. In Edinburgh, for example, there were already chairs in natural philosophy, medicine and mathematics, surviving from the seventeenth century, but to these were added chairs in botany, anatomy, midwifery, chemistry, materia medica (the study of the materials, chiefly botanical, from which medicines were prepared), surgery, astronomy, agriculture. The patronage shown by the Town Council paid off: students did come, from home and abroad, and the number of graduates steadily rose.

The Town Council's investment in university teaching was shrewdly limited. Professors' salaries were not large. It was intended that the basic salary should be enhanced by a system that strikes terror into the heart of the twentieth-century academic: most of the income of eighteenth-century academics came from class fees paid by students. The stark and salutory implication was that poor lectures, attracting small numbers of students, would generate only a dismal income. Adam Smith, a successful professor at Glasgow University, and advocate of the market economy, recognised the compelling logic of the system:

It is the interest of every man to live as much at his ease as he can; and if his emoluments are to be precisely the same, whether he does or does not perform some very laborious duty, it is certainly his interest … either to neglect it altogether, or, if he is subject to some authority which will not suffer him to do this, to perform it in as careless and slovenly a manner as that authority will permit …

(quoted in Chitnis, 1976, p. 140)

Chitnis has compiled figures to show that class fees contributed much more to professors' salaries than did their basic salary. At the end of the century, for example, the professor of anatomy boosted a basic salary of fifty pounds to nearly a thousand (p. 152).

In sum, then, the milieu of the Scottish Enlightenment was its university cities, where flourished groups of characteristically clubbable intellectuals, divided by no ideological rifts, all committed to the pursuit of natural knowledge, in the general context of a commitment to the improvement of Scotland's, and their own, fortunes. They were supported by civic authorities, by an enterprising commercial culture, by extensive international scholarly contact, and even by the moderate wing of the Church.

Within this milieu, a scientific and medical community had, by the middle of the century, reached maturity – a maturity which meant that it was independent of the accidental incidence of a handful of energetic individuals. By 1760 it had built itself an infrastructure of learned societies, journals, specialist university teaching and research, and last, but not least, connections with agriculture and industry. The scientific and medical community could reproduce itself: it wouldn't collapse at the death of one particular and influential member (Christie, 1974).

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