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Edinburgh University Library Department of Special Collections

Papers of Rev Dr John Walker

Collection Summary

Reference Code

GB 0237 Rev Dr John Walker

Date(s)

1731-1803

Extent and medium of the unit of description

3 metres

(55 volumes)

Existence and Location of Originals

This material is original.

Name of creator

Walker | John | 1731-1803 | professor of natural history, University of Edinburgh and clergyman

Biographical History

Biographical History

John Walker (1731-1803) had a major impact on the establishment of geology as an organised classroom subject in an institution of higher education, and he therefore has a legitimate claim to the title of "Father of Geological Education." One of his most significant works was his essay on peat, in which he made a complete analysis of the organic content and origin of the substance. In other papers he affirmed that petroleum occurred in rocks as a natural substance. His discussion of rock structures included accurate definitions of strike and dip as well as recognition of horizontal strata overlying tilted beds, a condition to which he referred as offlap. In 1779 John Walker was appointed to the chair of Natural History at Edinburgh, a post which he held until his death in 1803. His university lectures included discussions on agriculture's place in national improvement, and his public lectures on agriculture and the Scottish Highlands.

John Walker studied at the University of Edinburgh, where he prepared for the ministry in the (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland. He was later licensed to preach in 1754 and soon met Henry Home, Lord Kames (1696-1782), who became his sponsor. Through this association Walker was commissioned to make an extensive study of the Hebrides in 1764, a trip that he would repeat on several occasions. From the time of his first ministry in 1758 until his appointment in 1779 to the chair of Natural History at Edinburgh, Walker spent all of his spare time studying botany and geology. He was greatly influenced by the works of Axel Fredrik Cronstedt (1722-1765), and especially by the contributions of Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778).

As a student Walker was trained in Latin and Greek and also quickly developed an interest in minerals. Influenced by William Cullen (1710-1790), Walker became particularly drawn to chemistry and mineralogy. He realised that the classification of minerals had been neglected and therefore travelled throughout the British Isles, sometimes with Cullen, collecting minerals from mines and outcrops. Using his own personal collection as well as that at the University Museum, he had established an Elementa Mineralogiae by the 1750s, and this classification was later modified to include 323 genera. Among the most interesting minerals that he collected in the 1760s was strontianite, from the mines of Leadhills.

Walker played an instrumental role in the establishment of the Natural History Society of Edinburgh and was appointed first secretary of the Physical Section in 1783. He was also heavily involved in the organisation of the Natural History Society of Edinburgh in 1782. He was a long-time member of the Highland Society of Scotland, and as a result of his great interest in agriculture, formed the Agriculture Society of Edinburgh in 1792. These groups gave him the opportunity to participate in scientific discussions and provided an outlet for the publication of some of his articles.

Scope and Content

Scope and Content

The papers of Rev Dr John Walker consist of:

  • 16 volumes of his own lecture notes on natural history at the University of Edinburgh, covering a broad range of subjects: meteorology, geology, mineralogy, botany, zoology, fossils, hydrography, rivers, glaciers, etc (1766-1790)
  • 7 volumes of notes and memoranda from natural history field trips (1766-1774)
  • 5 volumes of papers and correspondence on various agricultural themes (late 18th century)
  • 1 volume of essays and observations on philosophy, human behaviour, Scottish history and antiquities (c1770)
  • 10 volumes of lecture notes on natural history taken down by David Pollock (1797)
  • 5 volumes of lecture notes taken down by Thomas Charles Hope (1784)
  • 4 volumes of lecture notes taken down by T Johnson
  • 1 volume of lecture notes (presented by SW Carruthers, 1933) (c1785)
  • 1 volume written by John Douglas (1791)
  • 5 volumes and other papers relating to geological interests
  • correspondence with many scientists of the period
  • 1 volume of Walker's sermons (1758-1790).

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