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

Biographical Information

Occupation, Sphere of Activity

John Walker became interested in botany at an early age, but this was not his only scientific interest: "I began to collect minerals in the year 1746" he later wrote. He entered the University of Edinburgh to prepare for the ministry in the Established (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland. At university he was attracted by the chemistry courses given by Professor William Cullen. With Cullen and other friends at university he made many collecting trips. It was also whilst at university that the young Walker became interested in the museum display of natural history, a collection which was already greatly revered. In 1779 he was to become the keeper of the Museum.

In 1758 Walker wrote his first scientific paper, an account of a medicine well. It was also at about this time that Walker made the acquaintance of Henry Home, Lord Kames, who greatly influenced his early career as a natural historian. From 1758-1762 he was minister at Glencorse in Midlothian, and from 1762-1783 minister at Moffat. During this period he undertook extensive tours in the Scottish Highlands. Walker's manuscripts cover a wide range of his interests and activities. Of particular note to students of botany are the volumes in which Walker annually noted interesting records, many from Edinburgh and its environs, supplied by Mr Yalden.

In 1764 Walker was appointed by Lord Kames to make a survey of the Hebrides and the Highlands. The Hebrides were poor and undeveloped and Walker was selected by Lord Kames to highlight the problems in an attempt to improve the situation, being at the same time commissioned to make a report to the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge. In order to complete the survey Walker travelled three thousand miles in seven months, and the resulting report was eventually printed by his friend Charles Stewart under the title an Economical History of the Hebrides in 1808.

Walker was appointed regius professor of natural history at the University of Edinburgh in 1779 while also continuing his pastoral duties at Moffat. This ultimately proved impractical and four years on he was transferred to the parish of Colinton. The subjects that he covered in his lectures included: botany, geology, hydrography, meteorology, mineralogy and zoology. His lectures on agriculture as part of his natural history course were the first in an English-speaking university. It has been said that Walker represents the link betweeen a mediaeval and a new modern geology.


The Rev. Dr. John Walker conducted correspondence with many luminaries of the 18th century, including: Carl Linnaeus, James Hutton, John Hope, John Playfair, Sir James Hall, Joseph Black and Benjamin Franklin. As professor, Walker taught many students who later became important figures in their own right; these included: Robert Jameson, Robert Brown and James Edward Smith.

Other Significant Information

Notable publications:

An Economical History of the Hebrides, 2 vols, (1808)

Essays on Natural History and Rural Economy, ( 1812)

Honours, Qualifications and Appointments

1765: Awarded Honorary Doctor of Medicine (MD), University of Glasgow

1765: Awarded Honorary Doctor of Divinity (DD), University of Edinburgh

1782: Elected Member, Natural History Society of Edinburgh

1783: Elected Member, Linnaen Society

1783: Appointed First Secretary, Royal Society of Edinburgh, Physical Section

Elected Member, Select Society

Elected Member, Edinburgh Agricultural Society

Elected Member, Highland Society of Scotland

Elected Member, Glasgow Literary Society

Elected Member, Bath and West of England Agricultural Society


List of sources for the biographical information:

Devlin-Thorp, Sheila, Scotland's Cultural Heritage, (Edinburgh, University of Edinburgh, 1981)

Taylor, George, John Walker: a Notable Scottish Naturalist, (Edinburgh, reprinted from Trans. Bot. Soc. Edinb., vol.38, 1959)

Williams, Trevor I and Lee, Sidney (eds), Dictionary of National Biography, vol x, (London, Smith, Elder & Co, 1908)

Withers, Charles WJ, The Rev. Dr. John Walker and the Practice of Natural History in the Late Eighteenth-Century Scoltland, ( London, Archives of Natural History, Vol 18, 1991)