Scientists of St Andrews

Deputy features editor Tas Vámos discusses some of the world's most notable scientists, and their relationships with St Andrews.

Illustration: Clara Morriss

For much of its long and storied history, St Andrews has been a bastion of scientific thought. The University has been the residence of many famous and influential – and sometimes eccentric – scientists. Although well-known figures such as John Napier, inventor of logarithms, and Edward Jenner, creator of the smallpox vaccine, are often associated with St Andrews, they are by no means the only great scientific minds to have emerged from our university. The following are a few of the lesser known, but no less influential, scientists who through their accomplishments and discoveries at the University and beyond, contributed to the scientific reputation of St Andrews through the centuries.

D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson

A St Andrews biology undergraduate would be hard pressed to make it through first year without hearing one of the many stories about one of St Andrews’ most renowned polymaths, D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson. Thompson spent much of his long life associated with the University, first as a professor in Dundee (the University of Dundee was part of St Andrews at the time) and then in St Andrews proper, where he served as the Chair of Natural History from 1917 until his death in 1948.

One of the last “gentleman scientists” of the Victorian tradition, Thompson was learned not only in his primary fields of zoology and botany, but also in mathematics and classics, as well as being well versed in Latin, Greek, and medieval Italian. His magnum opus, On Growth and Form, published in 1917, was a groundbreaking book detailing the mathematical nature of how living things develop their structures and shapes. He pioneered the study of morphogenesis, showing with elegant simplicity how the body form of any organism, when drawn on a gridded elastic sheet, can be made to assume any other form by transforming, or stretching, the grid in any manner of directions. This combination of biology with mathematical and mechanical principles was a new and exciting way of studying life, inspiring a wave of research that continues today at the University. His influence went beyond the sciences, however, and his ideas and illustrations also inspired generations of architects and designers.

Thompson was adventurous, taking part in several expeditions to far-flung regions of the Arctic, but he also loved his home in St Andrews. He was a well-known and recognisable figure around town; in his later years, he could often be seen parading around South Street with his pet parrot sitting on his shoulder. This parrot’s skeleton can still be seen today in the Bell Pettigrew Natural History Museum. The museum itself benefited greatly from Thompson’s time at St Andrews, as he greatly refurbished and expanded its collection.  

Matthew Forster Heddle

Although he was a professor of chemistry at the University, Matthew Forster Heddle (1828-1897) is best known as Scotland’s most famous mineralogist. A doctor by training, Heddle gave up a lucrative medical practice in favour of his true passion: the intricate geology for which Scotland is world-renowned. He took up a position at the University to pursue this interest, and during his time at St Andrews collected thousands of rock specimens, published dozens of scientific papers, and authored a posthumously published book on the mineralogy of Scotland. He also oversaw the excavation of the famous fossil site Dura Den in Cupar, globally recognised for its well-preserved fish fossils.

Not one to sit idly by while his students collected samples, Heddle was known for his forays into the remotest parts of Scotland to collect his own fossils and minerals, a task he accomplished with his sledgehammer and plenty of dynamite, both “tools of the trade” for 19th-century geologists. Befitting of his adventurous nature, he was also a keen mountaineer, summiting many of the most isolated peaks of the highlands and islands even before they were surveyed or mapped, and was an honorary member of the Scottish Mountaineering Club.

In St Andrews, Heddle also campaigned for the admittance of women into the University. He privately tutored Elizabeth Garrett, who would later become Britain’s first female doctor, after the university barred her from formally attending classes.

James Gregory

Walking down South Street, just past the entrance to St Mary’s quad, you may have noticed a stone slab with a brass line embedded in it. This memorial, set up in 2014, is in honour of James Gregory, a preeminent astronomer, physicist, and mathematician of the 17th century who was also the first Regius Professor of Mathematics at the University. Gregory first drew this north-south line in his office to use as a meridian along which to orient himself when observing the night sky with his telescope. It predates the more famous Greenwich prime meridian, which is now used as the world’s arbitrary central line of longitude.

During his six-year tenure at the University beginning in 1668, Gregory set up a laboratory in what is now the King James Library above Parliament Hall. An astute academic, Gregory was also an inventor, designing and commissioning a new type of telescope, now known as the Gregorian reflecting telescope. He also manufactured what was, up to then, the world’s most accurate clock, capable of measuring time to a third of a second.

Gregory also corresponded with his contemporary, Sir Isaac Newton, with whom he co-invented calculus. He later provided the first proof to the fundamental theorem of calculus, and wrote the first textbook on the subject, which led to it being taught in St Andrews long before it was introduced in Cambridge, where Newton was based. After making numerous discoveries in other mathematical fields as well as in physics, Gregory departed St Andrews for the University of Edinburgh, where he died at the age of 36 in the year 1675.

Sir David Brewster

Sir David Brewster, a long-time resident of St Andrews, served as the University’s principal from 1837 to 1859. Yet prior to this appointment, Brewster had the distinction of being the inventor of the kaleidoscope, just one of his many advances in the physics of light that earned him the title of “the father of experimental optics.”

Brewster was an inventor of all manner of gadgets, including an improved stereoscope, and is also credited with the improvement of Britain’s lighthouses with his research into the field of optics, which allowed for more luminous and therefore safer lights to be installed in lighthouses across Britain.

Arguably, however, Brewster’s greatest contribution to science was not as an inventor but as a communicator. Brewster facilitated communication not just between academics at different institutions and in different fields, but to the public at large as well. As a founder of the British Science Association, he was one of the first to realise the value of informing the public about the science being conducted in academic institutions.

He was also a pioneer in the fledgling field of photography, encouraging the early photographers of St Andrews and innovating on camera designs, an interest which led to the invention of the binocular camera. He worked with fellow St Andrean John Adamson (the namesake of the South Street restaurant and bar, which occupies his former home) on calotype photography, an early photographic process. Today Brewster’s house in St Leonard’s quad is honoured with a plaque detailing his achievements.

James Bell Pettigrew

One day in 1903, the famed physician and naturalist James Bell Pettigrew sat at the top of a steeply sloping street on the outskirts of St Andrews, strapped inside a petrol-powered aeroplane of his own design. A few short seconds after taking off, remaining airborne for about 20 metres, Pettigrew then crashed into the ground and broke his femur. Perhaps fittingly, the place where Pettigrew took his infamous flight is now occupied by Memorial Hospital.

Pettigrew first came to St Andrews in 1875 as a professor of medicine and anatomy, but his chief fascination was always with flight, an interest encapsulated in his most famous work, Animal Locomotion: or Walking, Swimming, and Flying, published in 1878. Far from being a passive observer, Pettigrew was a pioneer in aviation, and spent his later years in St Andrews designing and building various flying machines such as the one he infamously tested in 1903. Although he never achieved powered flight himself, his writings on both natural and mechanical flight were valuable additions to the scientific literature, and his numerous designs were influential in the development of powered flight by other inventors. 

Pettigrew lived in Swallowgate on the Scores, a large stone building that now houses the School of Classics. He gave it its name for the birds he would watch from its windows as they pirouetted through the sky. Although he died in 1908, his legacy is preserved today in the form of the Bell Pettigrew Natural History Museum, located in the Bute building, which was dedicated to him in 1912 after his widow funded its restoration.

In diverse fields ranging from zoology to mineralogy to optics, St Andrews’ scientists have helped shape the world’s scientific thinking for centuries. Like the individuals described above, the many researchers at the University today continue this tradition of being at the forefront of science, constantly expanding the limits of knowledge, technology, and innovation.


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