John Playfair (1748-1819)

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Professor of Mathematics, 1785-1805, and Natural Philosophy, 1805-1819

Early Life

John Playfair was born at Benvie, Dundee, on 10 March 1748, the son of a Minister. He was educated at home and then studied at St. Andrews University. At the age of eighteen, in 1766, he competed for the Chair of Mathematics at Aberdeen's Marischal College. He failed to secure it and went on to study theology at St. Mary's College and was licensed as a Minister in 1770, by which time he was in Edinburgh. In 1772 he was again unsuccessful in an attempt to win a Chair, this time the Chair of Natural Philosophy at St. Andrews. That year too, his father died and the responsibility for the family upon him. He became the Minister at Liff and Benvie, his father's church. He stayed at Liff and Benvie until 1783 when he became tutor to the Fergusons of Raith.

Academic Career

In 1785, Playfair was appointed joint-Professor of Mathematics at Edinburgh University, with Adam Ferguson (1723-1816). In 1805 he exchanged this for the post of Professor of Natural Philosophy at Edinburgh. When peace at last came to Europe in 1815, after the Congress of Vienna, he travelled to France, Switzerland, and Italy, studying the geology and mineralogy of these countries. Playfair died in Edinburgh on 20 July 1819.


His publications include Elements of geometry (1795), Illustrations of the Huttonian theory of the Earth (1802), and Outlines of natural philosophy (1812).


  • Brother of the inventor of statistical graphics, William Playfair (1759-1823)
  • Brother of architect James Playfair (1755-1794)
  • Uncle of architect William Henry Playfair (1790-1857)

This article is a sketch outline biography. Our intention is to flesh it out with further detail in due course.