David Brewster at the Royal Society of Edinburgh: science, politics and patronage in Scotland, 1808–37

B. Jenkins*

*Corresponding author for this work

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The Scottish natural philosopher David Brewster played an important role in the history of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE), being at different times its general secretary, vice-president, and president. This paper examines his career between joining the society in 1808 and becoming principal of the University of St Andrews in 1838. It explores how he built a network of scientific and personal connections with key individuals in Scottish science that helped him establish himself as a leading Scottish natural philosopher of the nineteenth century. The surviving records of the RSE allow us to see how Brewster used recommendations of new members and his own contributions to the meetings of the society to build his reputation. Brewster was a committed reform Whig for his entire career. We will see how he both benefited from the patronage of fellow Whigs, such as John Playfair and James Russell, and was able to build strong personal connections with figures from across the political spectrum, from the Tory president of the society, Sir Walter Scott, to the radical anatomist, Robert Knox. Brewster’s career at the RSE has much to tell about the roles of politics, patronage and sociability in the scientific culture of Scotland in the early nineteenth century.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)20-45
Number of pages26
JournalScottish Historical Review
Issue number1
Early online date26 Mar 2022
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2022


  • 19th century
  • David Brewster
  • Patronage
  • Politics
  • Royal Society of Edinburgh
  • Walter Scott


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