Little Fish Tour’s Official guide to top 5 Edinburgh Scientists

Despite being a small city on the world stage Edinburgh has produced many highly regarded scientists whose inventions and ideas changed the lives of millions around the globe, and as the Edinburgh Science Festival kicked off on the 6th April, we thought we’d have a look back at some of the amazing scientists Edinburgh has been home to over the years.

Alexander Graham Bell

Born in Edinburgh in 1847, Alexander Graham Bell is most famous for his invention of the telephone. Surprisingly Bell’s school record was poor, spoiled by absences and mediocre grades and when he left at 15, he had barely completed one quarter of his studies. During a year spent in London, his grandfather helped spark an interest in learning and by the time he was 16 Bell took a job as a pupil-teacher at the Weston House Academy in Elgin, Scotland, teaching Elocution and Music while studying Latin and Greek. One year later he enrolled at the University of Edinburgh and in 1868 he completed his entrance exams and was accepted into University College London. At age 23, following the death of his brothers from Tuberculosis, Bell emigrated to Ontario, Canada, with his mother and father, before he moved to Boston just one year later.

Bells mother, Eliza Symonds, was almost completely deaf and his father had worked as an educator for the deaf, trying to help them communicate, and this clearly influenced Bell who took a teaching position at the Boston School for Deaf Mutes in April 1871. Bell worked as an educator in many deaf schools and one of his students was Mabel Hubbard. She began working with Bell in 1873 and the two grew close, eventually marrying in 1877 and they went on to have 4 children together.

It was around this time that Bell began working on devices to transmit sound, originally working to improve the current telegraph system. Thomas Edison, working for Western Union, had devised a way to reliably send 4 messages across a single telegraph wire, whereas Bell’s idea for a “harmonic telegraph” would allow for ten messages to be sent the same time by using tuning forks set to specific notes, although this initially proved difficult to replicate outside of the lab. Once Bell had a way of transmitting musical notes through wires, it was a short leap to transmitting the human voice, and on Valentines Day 1876 he filed a patent for his invention, despite having no working prototype. This patent was granted on March 7th 1876 and has proved to be one of the most valuable ever. Just three days later, Bell managed the first telephone call, summoning his assistant with the words “Mr Watson, come here, I want to see you”. From then on Bell worked to improve his design to allow it work better and over longer distances until eventually on January 25th 1915 Bell made a call from New York, to Watson in San Francisco a distance of 3,400 miles.

From then on Bell’s work mainly focussed on new inventions, such as the hydrofoil, metal detector and photophone, which would eventually lead to the fibre optic communications we use now. Bell died in 1922 aged 75 with his wife by his side, following his funeral it is reported that every phone in North America was silenced as a mark of respect for Bell’s achievements.

James Clerk Maxwell

Born in Edinburgh, June 13th 1831, James Clerk Maxwell was one of the most influential physicists of the 19th century. Maxwell’s parents were married late in life, and when he was born his mother was already 40 years old. Sadly in 1839 his mother passed away from abdominal cancer, the same disease that Maxwell would later succumb to.

In 1841 Maxwell was sent to study at Edinburgh Academy where he was eager to learn, and worked on his personal study on top of the school’s curriculum. It was here, in aged just 14, that he had his first scientific paper published. Aged 16 he began studying at University of Edinburgh and had two more scientific papers published, before moving to the University of Cambridge in 1850. After graduating Maxwell decided to accept a position teaching at Marischal College in Aberdeen to be closer to his father, whose health was deteriorating, but unfortunately his father passed away before he started this position in 1856. During his time in Aberdeen, Maxwell met Katherine Mary Dewar, the daughter of Marischal College’s principal. The two courted and were married in 1858. In 1860 the University of Aberdeen was formed, and Maxwell’s position was declared redundant, which resulted in him taking up a professorship in Natural Philosophy at Kings College London.

The five years spent at Kings College, were arguably the most productive spell of Maxwell’s life. During this time Maxwell published his two best known papers, discussing electromagnetic fields, and won the Royal Society’s Rumford Medal in 1860 for his work on colour photography. He continued working on; the viscosity of gases, magnetism and electromagnetism finally giving a lecture to the Royal Society in 1866. After this Maxwell resigned his position at Kings College and returned north with his wife, Katherine.

In the last fifteen years of his life Maxwell wrote papers and textbooks on; control engineering and the physics of heat and motion until he became the fist Cavendish Professor of Physics in 1871. In 1879 Maxwell died of abdominal cancer aged just 48, the same age his mother was when she died of the same disease. He is buried Near Castle Douglas, in Galloway where he grew up. An extended biography of his life was published in 1882 by his lifelong friend Professor Lewis Campbell.

John Napier

Born in Merchiston Castle, Edinburgh, in 1550, not much is known of Napier’s early life, but it is thought that, after leaving the University of St Andrews, without acquiring a degree, he travelled throughout Europe as was the custom for the sons of Scottish gentry at the time. By 1571 he was back in Edinburgh, living in Merchiston Castle and in 1572 he married his first wife. In 1579 his wife passed away and just a few years later Napier remarried.

Napier’s main contributions to science are the invention of Logarithms, the popularisation of the decimal point and the invention of “Napier’s Bones” a system of small rods designed to allow a more mechanical way of figuring out calculations. In 1614 he published a paper on logarithms which was quickly picked up by universities around the UK. Napier’s logarithms were designed to simplify calculations, particularly multiplication as used in astronomy.

A colourful character outside of mathematics Napier openly experimented with alchemy (turning metals to gold), which was considered a perfectly legitimate area of study at the time. On top of this Napier is believed to have had a strong interest in witchcraft and magic, and in 1600’s Scotland being accused of witchcraft was a serious matter. Although he was suspected, due to his slightly eccentric manner and interests, he was never formally charged. Napier’s did nothing to help dispel the rumours of witchcraft, he kept a black spider as a pet and carried it around with him in a small wooden box. Napier also kept a black rooster, which was believed by some to be his “familiar spirit”, a supernatural being disguised as a common animal who would help him with his magic spells.

Between his two marriages Napier fathered twelve children before his death on 4th April 1617. His burial site is unknown to this day, with St Giles Cathedral and St Cuthbert’s thought to be the most likely locations, but we are unlikely to ever find out for certain. Today the remains of Merchiston castle form a part of Edinburgh Napier University which opened in 1964 as Napier Technical College. On university grounds Merchiston tower hosts a bust of John Napier along with a replica set of Napiers bones to honour the memory of the man who helped to create modern mathematics.

The Edinburgh 7

The Edinburgh seven were the first female university students in the UK. They began studying medicine at Edinburgh University in 1869 and although they were prevented from graduating their fight earned them many supporters, including Charles Darwin, and shone a light on women’s rights within education. Over their four-year campaign there were a few changes, but the Edinburgh Seven are considered to be; Sophia Jex-Blake, Isabel Thorne, Edith Pechey, Matilda Chaplin, Helen Evans, Mary Anderson and Emily Bovell.

Sophia Jex-Blake was the first to apply, in 1869, and although her application was accepted, the university decided that it could not implement the changes required to educate women “in the interest of one lady”. Undeterred Jex-Blake posted an advert in the newspapers looking for women to join her. This led to a second application later that same year for seven women. The group sat their entrance exam in October, with four of them scoring in the top seven places, and in November they officially signed the student matriculation roll, confirming Edinburgh as the first university to allow female students. The university decided that the women would be educated in separate classes from the men and that their fees would be higher to compensate for the smaller class size, but they were allowed to begin their studies.

Although the university had agreed to let the women study, not everyone was pleased with this and on the 18th November 1870 the underlying tensions boiled over. The women were due to sit an anatomy exam at Surgeons Hall, but found when they arrived the gates locked and a crowd of several hundred protesters. The protesters pelted the women with mud and rubbish while shouting abuse at them. However, the women refused to run away and waited in front of the gate, enduring the hostility of the crowd, until a sympathetic student came to unlock the gates for them. Their calm and reasoned response to the situation, coupled with the aggressive nature of the protest earned the Edinburgh Seven many friends and admirers. It also led to a group of male students acting as bodyguards for the women. These men were shocked by how the women had been treated and for weeks after they escorted the women from their home to exams, classes and back again.

Despite the support from some areas of the public and the hard work of the seven, the university declined to grant them degrees. In 1873 the court of session backed the university’s decision to refuse the women degrees and they were unable to graduate. This was not the end though as five of the seven, Bovell, Chaplin, Jex-Blake, Marshall and Pechey, went on to receive their MD’s from Paris or Berne. Jex-Blake helped to found the London School of Medical Science for Women, the Edinburgh School of Medical Science for Women and established a clinic for the poor in Edinburgh’s Bruntsfield area. Pechey went on to be the senior medical officer at CAMA, a hospital for women and girls in Mumbai. Chaplin founded a midwifery school in Tokyo before returning to the UK to practice medicine in London.

The legacy of the Edinburgh Seven and what they helped to create lives on. Largely thanks to their hard work and dedication Scottish universities began accepting female undergraduate students in 1892. And in 2019 all seven women were awarded honorary degrees in Bachelor of Medicine & Bachelor of Surgery.

Sir James Young Simpson

James Young Simpson was born in Bathgate, June 1811 and is most famous for his development of anaesthesia during childbirth. At age 14 Simpson entered the University of Edinburgh to study for an arts degree, and two years later he began his medical studies graduating with an MBChB before becoming a member of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1830, graduating with an MD in 1832.

Simpson began experiments with his two assistants looking for new types of anaesthesia and on 4th November 1847 they experimented with chloroform, which was being used on large animals, but had been deemed unsafe for humans. The three men inhaled the chloroform and reported that it put them all in a great mood, before they promptly collapsed, not to awaken until the next morning. Upon waking up, Simpson realised that he had found something that could be used as an anaesthetic and had his niece also try inhaling the chloroform to repeat the results. It was however quite by accident that Simpson had this success. Had he experimented with a little less chloroform he wouldn’t have been knocked out and may have discarded chloroform as a potential anaesthetic, and had he inhaled more chloroform he would likely have died, ensuring that chloroform would have been permanently branded dangerous for humans.

After anaesthesia, Simpson continued to work on helping women in childbirth. He improved upon existing techniques and tools to develop “Simpsons forceps”, as well as developing a vacuum extractor, although this would not become popular for over a century. In 1850 Simpson was elected president of the Royal College of Physicians Edinburgh and in 1866 he was award the title of Baronet of Strathavon in the county of Linlithgow and the City of Edinburgh, allowing him to use the prefix Sir instead of Mr. There is also an old folk tale that the first baby to be born with the use of anaesthetic was given the name anaesthesia by her mother, but this has been proven false.

Simpson died in May 1870, aged 58, and his family were offered a burial spot in Westminster Abbey, however they decided to have him buried in Warriston Cemetery in Edinburgh. On the day of his funeral a Scottish national holiday was announced and approximately 100,000 people lined the streets for his funeral procession. There are many memorials to Simpson, most noticeably there is a statue of him in Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh and a bust in Westminster Abbey. His house in Edinburgh has now become a charity called “Simpson House” helping people with addiction issues.