Appointment of Sir David Brewster as Principal of Edinburgh University, 1859

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Calotype portrait of Sir David Brewster (1781-1868) by D. O. Hill and Robert Adamson
In 1859 Sir David Brewster (1781-1868) became the first layman since 1622 and the first member of a church other than the Church of Scotland to be appointed Principal of Edinburgh University.

The Principalship of Edinburgh University fell vacant on 2 May 1859 upon the death of John Lee (1779-1859). The previous year the Universities (Scotland) Act 1858 had been passed, which transferred the power to elect a new Principal from the Town Council of Edinburgh to seven Curators of Patronage. An Executive Commission was set up to implement the Act and ordained that it should come into force from 15 October 1859.

Lee's death placed the Commissioners and the University in a paradoxical position. Three of the seven Curators of Patronage were to be elected by the University Court, the new supreme governing body of the University as established by the Universities (Scotland) Act 1858. The University Court itself, though, was to consist of the Principal, the Lord Provost of Edinburgh, and of Assessors appointed by the Rector, the Chancellor, the Town Council, General Council, and the Senatus Academicus. The Chancellor was to be elected by the General Council, whose first meeting was to be chaired by the Principal. Clearly, then, none of the new administrative measures introduced by the Act could be effected unless a Principal was already in post.

The only choice, therefore, was to retain the traditional system whereby the Town Council elected a Principal. This they did on 28 October 1859, a fortnight after the Act depriving them of theirs powers came into force. Their choice fell upon the eminent scientist and mathematician Sir David Brewster (1781-1868). The appointment was epoch-making in two senses. Firstly, Brewster, like the majority of the Town Council, was a Free Churchman. Until the passing of the Test Act in 1853, the Principal of Edinburgh University had been required by law to be a member of the established Church of Scotland. Secondly, the Principal had traditionally been a practising Minister of the Church of Scotland. Brewster was the first layman to hold the post since since Patrick Sands (c1567-1635).

Other University Events in 1859

See also