Sir David Brewster—scientist, creationist, preacher
At Glasgow’s International Airport, Prestwick, where some New York flights make their first touchdown on the British Isles, portraits of Scotland’s famous scientists, inventors, explorers, and national leaders, challenge visitors to esteem a race of people whose intellectual achievements have been shared for the benefit of all mankind. Among them is Sir David Brewster, born 200 years ago—a man of prodigious energies and talents, and one of Scotland’s greats.
In his lifetime, Brewster performed outstandingly as a divinity student, a renowned preacher, tutor, editor, successful writer for popular science, inventor, university principal, and even an advocate for social reform. Historically, his life’s work comes after Isaac Newton’s (of whom he wrote a biography); was contemporary for a period with Charles Darwin and his death occurred eleven years before the birth of Albert Einstein. David Brewster did much to make science popular among the masses, but when ‘Darwinism’ began to be approved, he viewed the trend as ‘folly’.
David was an advantaged child whose father’s intellectual activities as Rector of the Grammar School in Jedburgh, and studies at Edinburgh University, provided manuscripts for a precocious boy to pore over. James Veitch, the ‘peasant astronomer’ encouraged and helped him in making sun dials, microscopes, and telescopes. Actually, this brilliant boy was only twelve years old when he was admitted to the revered halls of learning at the University of Edinburgh. There he completed all the prescribed courses like the other students but without taking out a formal B.A. degree. From that point of scholastic achievement, his background and religious aspirations led him to continue studying as a Divinity student, and in 1800, he received an honorary M.A. at the age of 19. It was not until four years later, that the Church of Scotland granted him a licence to preach. Although never ordained to the pastoral ministry, David Brewster preached frequently and with great acceptance, to the congregations in Edinburgh and Leith churches. His knowledge of the scriptures and his sound doctrine ensured him a welcome in any pulpit, and no doubt introduced him as an author to be read and discussed over many a Scottish meal-table, at home and abroad.
For those times, David’s opportunities were certainly unusual. Besides the encouragement and example of fine parents, Margaret and James Brewster, his creative friendship with James Veitch, and his extraordinary education, his youth was blessed with an opening to serve as amanuensis (or secretary) to Dr. Thomas Somerville, noted scholar and author, and his own minister in Jedburgh. The inspiration of this involvement in Christian service did much to lay foundations for his faith and appreciation of truth which were to mark his whole life.
William Whewell, in his History of the Inductive Sciences, describes Sir David Brewster as ‘the Johannes Kepler of Optics’. Though the world today is largely ignorant of Brewster’s contribution to our wellbeing, he received a greater degree of recognition in his lifetime than almost any other physicist before or since: including two degrees by the age of 25, elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (in 1808), and of the Royal Society of London seven years later, a Knighthood (in 1832) at the age of 51, practically every medal awarded by the Royal Society, and honorary membership of many foreign academies. He served as Principal of the United Colleges of San Salvador and St. Leonards of the University of Edinburgh and from 1859 until shortly before his death, he had the honor of serving that university as its President.
About the year 1798, the influence of his friend and fellow student Henry Brougham, stimulated his experimental research in the field of light. At that time, the darkness of the Reign of Terror in France had scarcely begun to fade from the face of Europe, and Jenner was developing his safe vaccination for smallpox. Using simple apparatus, Brewster discovered many beautiful optical effects and succeeded in relating optical properties to crystal symmetry. His experiments were to lead to many benefits in the optical field which we in our day still enjoy, but take for granted, being ignorant of who it was who brought the knowledge of these discoveries to mankind.
David Brewster believed that his findings disproved in part Newton’s explanation of the curving of light on its path. It was during an intensive study on the absorption of light in the spectrum, in an attempt to improve the quality of colored eyeglasses that Brewster came to the conclusion that he also differed profoundly from Newton’s findings regarding color. This painstaking research further convinced him of his ‘emission theory of light’, which he had already held for so long. Examining a blue eyeglass, he found this color brought severe weariness to the eyes by the transmission of only red and blue rays which differed so widely from each other, that the eye was actually prevented from adjusting to a common focus. His work in the study of crystals of various minerals (crystallography), was the beginning of a whole new science called Optical Minerology. This led to what has become known as ‘Brewster’s Law’ which relates to polarisation, the way in which light rays exhibit different properties in different directions.
It was Brewster’s research on the construction of the lens of the eye which confirmed the existence of an ordered fibrous arrangement of its parts. Most remarkably, modern students using a laser have scarcely improved on the data discovered by Sir David Brewster so many years ago.
It was characteristic of the man that Brewster ‘did not move with the times … and eschewed theory, to a large extent equating it with speculation’ (Cochran: New Scientist, December 1981). When Fresnel in 1830 established the ‘wave or ‘undulating’ theory of light’ [still accepted in our day), Sir David Brewster carefully avoided this explanation, and even omitted it altogether from his Treatise on Optics.
Perhaps one reason why it is hard today to detect Brewster’s influence on modern optics, and why his renown is unknown to so many students and scientists, was because it was usually left to others to make interpretations of his observations. It is regrettable that his great endowment to our present fund of knowledge still goes largely unnoticed. Even the Kaleidoscope, the optical toy which has brought joy to generations of children came from the hands of Brewster in 1816, but few know this.
The great amount of literary work which he was able to accomplish in his lifetime, can only be described as amazing. That he should find the time to preach, write, edit, (Encyclopaedia Britannica, Edinburgh Magazine, Scots Magazine and various other scientific journals over the years), champion the cause of British scientists and inventors, etc., leaves the average lay person truly bewildered.
When his first wife, Juliet, died in 1850, after forty years of happy marriage, the loss of her constant companionship and support bowed his unusually strong character low. But God had further truths and findings for His servant It was out of the depths of this experience and the agitation of his confused questioning that he searched the scriptures as he never had before, crying to God for comfort and spiritual light.
The contention of his renewed faith and vigorous efforts throughout the remainder of his life shows something of his irrepressible youthfulness and triumphant joy, when we read that at 74 years of age, he fell once more in love with a charming young woman, Jane Purnell, and re-married.
Within a few years of this marriage, the world had started on its pathway of enthusiastic acceptance of evolution. Brewster, a forceful opponent of this new trend, encouraged the readers of his publications to also take a resolute stand against it. He was adamant that no evidence, past or present, supported the new Darwinian idea.
His marriage of 1857 gave him a daughter who adored learning of the years of her father’s exuberant quest for the knowledge and understanding of his Creator’s marvelous works. Although she did not inherit his gifts as a scientist, her writing ability enabled her to produce a successful biography entitled, The Home Life of Sir David Brewster.
At age 86, David Brewster contracted pneumonia. His life was soon to pass. He simply said ‘I shall see Jesus and that will be grand. I shall see Him who made the worlds.’
On 10 February 1868, at Allerby, Melrose, Brewster did just that.