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The Secret Scientific History of St Andrews

Updated: Oct 20, 2023

Ah, St Andrews. Known for its ruins, its beaches, its university, its golf… and its scientific advancements? Maybe not, but it should be. Scotland is world-renowned for some mind-boggling inventions: from James Watt’s steam engine to Alexander Graham Bell’s practical telephone to John Logie Baird’s television. St Andrews, believe it or not, was home to some truly incredible scientists and the birthplace of some revolutionary achievements that really ought to be remembered.


To start with, the man behind that odd brass line outside St Mary’s on South Street. James Gregory (1638-1675) was the first Regius Professor of Mathematics at St Andrews. This remarkable man was the first to prove a version of the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus and wrote a textbook explaining the historical source behind the subject’s teaching here: 100 years before Cambridge, might I add. Gregory’s other accomplishments include the Gregorian telescope, the discovery of diffraction gratings, the observation of light travelling in different directions, and work on finding the area of the circle and hyperbola. Most notably, the brass line symbolises the very first meridian line, laid by Gregory 200 years before the Greenwich meridian was established, 12 minutes ahead.


During the 19th century, St Andrews was booming with scientific advancements. Sir David Brewster (1781-1868), Principal of the United Colleges at the University, developed a new, more practical stereoscope enabling better viewing of 3D images. James David Forbes (1809-1868) while principal, made vast advancements in the fields of heat, glaciers, and meteorology. The namesake of the Bell Pettigrew Museum in the Bute building, James Bell Pettigrew (1834-1908) was appointed representative of St Andrews at the General Medical Council. His accomplishments in natural history and anatomy can be seen in the museum’s exquisite display of fossils, skeletons, taxidermy, and spirit collections. Sir D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson (1860-1948) was chair of St Andrews Natural History department and was a most influential biologist and zoologist. During his time here he discovered that biological creatures and their physical form must adhere to the laws of physics, furthering his field’s understanding of animals through maths.


St Andrews’ scientific legacy continues into the last century too. Sir Robert Robinson (1886-1975), while a professor here, made a number of discoveries including the first illustration of ‘electron pushing’, showing the progression of reactions within organic chemistry, as well as the symbol for the toxic liquid benzene. He later discovered the molecular structures of morphine and penicillin. All of these inventions triggered profound advances in their respective fields.


If, like me, you really don’t understand a word of the technical science behind these developments, just know it’s very impressive. These professors massively advanced their field while many of them provided invaluable teaching to their students, inspiring further advancements. Much like many current professors.


The scientific legacy of our students started early too. The namesake of Edinburgh Napier University, the French word for the Natural Logarithm, and a crater on the moon, John Napier was a student here in 1563, aged 13. His achievements include a calculating device called ‘Napier’s Bones’ and the decimal point’s popularisation. The impressiveness of our students continues through the centuries. Sir Robert Watson-Watt studied engineering at University College, Dundee, then part of the University of St Andrews. In 1935 he developed an early form of radar, demonstrating its effectiveness in detecting aircraft; it eventually led to the survival of the RAF at the Battle of Britain and largely the Allies’ victory.



Though I’m not sure if these students detested 9ams, made shocking choices on Wednesday nights, or played smash or pass out the window of their flat, we can all share in being students of the University of St Andrews. Being a student during any age is hard work, it can be lonely, and it can be a lot of fun. The fact remains that though they are remembered centuries later for their scientific advancements, they are as much a part of this university’s legacy as we will be, one day. Something to remember, perhaps, if you forget what an accomplishment it is to be a student and what we might achieve in the future with the honourable University of St Andrews backing us.


Image from WikiCommons

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