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John Robison


John Walker

John Walker was born in 1731. He began to collect minerals as a child and continued this practice during his studies at the University of Edinburgh (1746-1749). While at university, even though his official course was divinity, he spent much of his spare time studying natural history. During this time, he met the chemist and physician William Cullen. Walker began making tours by himself and with Cullen to the nearby seaside and into the surrounding lowland environs to obtain "fossil" samples. These trips convinced him that the best way to study nature was in situ. As he would later state in his lectures: "But neither here, nor in the closet, nor in the best furnished Museum, can any one ever expect to become a thorough naturalist. The objects of nature themselves must be sedulously examined in their native state. The Fields of the Mountains must be harvested, the woods and waters must be explored."

During the 1750s Walker joined the Edinburgh Philosophical Society, served as a parish minister, toured the Highlands with Cullen and published his first paper. During the 1760s, he found favour with the Judge Advocate Lord Kames and forged ties with land-improving Lords like those of the Hopetoun family. The power of such patrons and his friendship with Cullen won him commissions to tour the Highlands in 1764 and 1771. He spent a great deal of time on these tours taking soil samples, cataloguing minerals and performing experiments. Walker's tours, connections to the landed class and correspondence strengthened his reputation as a natural historian.

After much intrigue in which his political connections proved very helpful, he was appointed to the University of Edinburgh's Regius Chair of Natural History in 1779. In this capacity, he made original contributions to botany, georgics (agriculture), geology and mineralogy. Of these four, the last captivated a great deal of his attention during his last decade of lecturing. During 1780s, he published several pamphlets for his students that addressed mineralogical classification: Schediasma Fossilium (1781), Delineato Fossilium (1782) and Classes Fossilium (1787). By the 1790s, Walker devoted the largest part of his lectures to mineralogy. The publication of Letter to Colonel Dirom, Quarter Master General of Scotland, on the discovery of Coal in Edinburgh during 1800 demonstrates his keen interest in subterranean matters. By the time Robert Jameson succeeded him as professor in 1803, the Chair of Natural History had become synonymous with mineralogy and geology.

From the 1760s onward, Walker had intended to publish his own book of Scottish natural history and had even gone to London in 1765 to research plant samples in the British Museum. Yet, to the dismay of academics and friends, this never happened. Some of this information was finally published in essay form at the end of his life and posthumously. The vast repository of his papers in Edinburgh University Library demonstrates that he indeed had the data to produce a first class work of natural history.

Because he never published such a magnum opus, he has often been overlooked by historians. But his influence was indeed far from slight and was felt both at home and abroad. In Scotland, he was a key advisor on georgics and mineralogy to parson naturalists, nobles and Judge Advocates. His ties with Lord Kames's family were so strong that he often wrote letters solely to Lady Kames. His expertise and personality also allowed him to maintain fruitful relationships within the faculty of the University of Edinburgh, especially professors Cullen, Black and Hope. He was a popular lecturer at the University and this no doubt contributed to the spread of his ideas amongst the future British politicians, farmers, ministers and lawyers that he taught.

A glance through his class lists would find the names of several personalities who shaped later eighteenth and early nineteenth century science and culture in Britain. Walker's name was also known on account of his vast foreign correspondence. He began to establish this network in the early 1760s, especially in 1762 when he wrote his first letter to Linnaeus. In addition to such contacts, his scientific correspondence broadened when he was appointed Keeper of Edinburgh's Natural History Museum in 1779 and when he was appointed Secretary of the Physical Section of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1783 (which he had helped found in 1782). Via his entire network, Walker received a wide range of specimens ranging from Siberian ores to West Floridian snake skins.

For a more detailed treatment of his life and work see Scott, Harold W., 'Introduction to Walker's Lectures on Geology' (London, 1966) and Eddy, MD, 'Geology, Mineralogy and Time in John Walker's University of Edinburgh Natural History Lectures (1779-1803)', in 'History of Science' (Winter 2001).

M. D. Eddy, University of Durham