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Scottish chemistry, classification and the late mineralogical career of the ‘ingenious’ Professor John Walker (1779–1803)

  • M. D. EDDY (a1)

During the first decade of the nineteenth century, Edinburgh was the scene of several lively debates concerning the structure of the Earth. Though the ideas of groups like the ‘Wernerians’ and the ‘Huttonians’ have received due attention, little has been done to explicate the practice of mineralogy as it existed in the decades before the debates. To dig deeper into the eighteenth-century subject that formed the foundation of nineteenth-century geology in Scotland, this essay concentrates on Rev. Dr John Walker, the University of Edinburgh's Professor of Natural History (1779–1803). In pursuing this topic, it builds on an earlier BJHS article in which I excavated his early career as a mineralogist (1749–79). After first addressing a few historiographical points and the provenance of the student manuscripts upon which this study is based, I explain the method that Walker used to arrange minerals. I then move on to show that, like his younger attempts at mineralogical classification, his mature system was based predominantly upon chemistry. This sets the stage for the last half of the essay where I reconstruct the mineralogical system that Walker taught to the hundreds of students who sat in his natural history lectures from 1782 until 1800. I then conclude with a few observations about the relevance of his mineralogy to the scientific community of late eighteenth-century Edinburgh.

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I wish to dedicate this essay to Roy Porter. It was his initial comments on my doctoral thesis that led me to write it. During 2002 sections of this study were presented to the University of Oxford's Modern History Faculty and at Max Planck Institute for the History of Science (MPI). The final phases were written over the next year when I was a postdoctoral fellow at MPI and the Dibner Institute, MIT. A very special thanks to the anonymous referees of the BJHS and to David M. Knight, Ursula Klein, David R. Oldroyd, Robert Fox, Rob Iliffe, David Pantalony, Fred Page, NAHSTE (Navigational Aids for the History of Science, Technology and the Environment in Scotland) and the staff of the following libraries: University of Durham, University of Newcastle, University of Edinburgh, Harvard University, the Dibner Institute (the Burndy Library) and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. All archival material is cited by permission of these libraries.
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The British Journal for the History of Science
  • ISSN: 0007-0874
  • EISSN: 1474-001X
  • URL: /core/journals/british-journal-for-the-history-of-science
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