David Brewster


David Brewster : biography

11 December 1781 – 10 February 1868

In the same year in which the British Association held its first meeting, Brewster received the honour of knighthood and the decoration of the Royal Guelphic Order. In 1838, he was appointed principal of the united colleges of St Salvator and St Leonard, University of St Andrews. In 1849, he acted as president of the British Association and was elected one of the eight foreign associates of the Institute of France in succession to J. J. Berzelius; and ten years later, he accepted the office of principal of the University of Edinburgh, the duties of which he discharged until within a few months of his death. In 1855, the government of France made him an Officier de la Légion d’honneur.

Of a high-strung and nervous temperament, Brewster was somewhat irritable in matters of controversy; but he was repeatedly subjected to serious provocation. He was a man of highly honourable and fervently religious character. In estimating his place among scientific discoverers, the chief thing to be borne in mind is that his genius was not characteristically mathematical. His method was empirical, and the laws that he established were generally the result of repeated experiment. To the ultimate explanation of the phenomena with which he dealt he contributed nothing, and it is noteworthy although he did not maintain to the end of his life the corpuscular theory he never explicitly adopted the wave theory of light. Few would dispute the verdict of James D. Forbes, an editor of the eighth edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica: "His scientific glory is different in kind from that of Young and Fresnel; but the discoverer of the law of polarization of biaxial crystals, of optical mineralogy, and of double refraction by compression, will always occupy a foremost rank in the intellectual history of the age." In addition to the various works of Brewster already mentioned, the following may be added: Notes and Introduction to Carlyle’s translation of Legendre’s Elements of Geometry (1824); Treatise on Optics (1831); The Martyrs of Science, or the Lives of Galileo, Tycho Brahe, and Kepler (1841); More Worlds than One (1854). Brewster’s religious beliefs stirred him to respond to Darwin’s "On the Origin of Species" and he published an article "The Facts and Fancies of Mr Darwin" in "Good Words 1862"


Brewster married twice. His first wife, Juliet Macpherson (c. 1776–1850), was a daughter of James Macpherson (1736–1796), a probable translator of Ossian poems. They married on 31 July 1810 in Edinburgh and had four sons and a daughter:Gordon, p. 45

  • James (1812–)
  • Charles Macpherson (1813–1828), drowned.
  • David Edward Brewster (17 August 1815 –) became a military officer (Lieutenant Colonel) serving in India.
  • Henry Craigie (1816–) became a photographer.Gordon, p. 244
  • Margaret Maria Gordon (1823–1907) wrote a book on Brewster,Gordon which is considered the most comprehensive description of his life.

Brewster married second time in Nice, on 26 (or 27) March 1857, to Jane Kirk Purnell (b. 1827), the second daughter of Thomas Purnell of Scarborough.Gordon, p. 151 Brewster died in 1868, and was buried at Melrose Abbey, next to his first wife and second son.Gordon, p. xiv The physics building at Heriot-Watt University is named in his honour.