Person: Leslie, John
John Leslie was a Scottish mathematician who became Professor of Natural Philosophy at Edinburgh and wrote popular textbooks.
Mathematical Profile (Excerpt):
- Leslie entered the University of St Andrews in 1779 at the age of 13.
- The Regius Professor of Mathematics at St Andrews at the time was Nicholas Vilant, and Leslie studied under him and also under his assistant John West.
- Leslie's abilities were quickly noticed by the Principal of the University who arranged a scholarship to enable Leslie to continue his studies.
- It was assumed that once his education was complete that Leslie would join the Church, which was the main occupation for educated boys, and it was on these conditions that the Principal gave the scholarship.
- While an undergraduate Leslie became friendly with John Playfair who was minister at Liff near Dundee, but an outstanding mathematician.
- In particular Leslie constructed a machine to make ice in their home at Raith, near Kirkcaldy.
- In 1785 Leslie went to the University of Edinburgh, matriculating as a divinity student.
- In the same year Playfair was appointed Professor of Mathematics at Edinburgh and Leslie became far more interested in attending classes in mathematics and science than he was in divinity lectures.
- He attended mathematics lectures by Playfair, science lectures by Joseph Black (a chemist who had discovered latent heat in 1761), Alexander Monro (a physician who held the chair of anatomy) and John Robison, and philosophy lectures from Dugald Stewart (son of Matthew Stewart and holder of the chair moral philosophy).
- In 1787 the Principal of the University of St Andrews died and Leslie no longer felt obliged to follow the conditions of his scholarship which required him to join the Church of Scotland.
- Soon after this Leslie became tutor to Thomas Randolph who was a student at Edinburgh but was from Virginia in North America.
- Hoping to improve his prospects of a job after being unsuccessful in Scotland, he went to London but, for a while, Leslie struggled to obtain a job there.
- This was the opportunity that Leslie needed to allow him to concentrate on his mathematical and scientific researches.
- After Leslie's election the Edinburgh moderates, determined to oust Leslie, took the affair to the general assembly of the Church of Scotland, its highest forum, which decided in May 1805 by the narrow majority of 96 to 84 that the affair be dropped and Leslie be left undeposed from his mathematics chair.
- Leslie was a successful professor of mathematics, attracting large classes of students and publishing his lectures in popular textbooks such as the three part work Elements of Geometry, Geometrical Analysis, and Plane Trigonometry (1809).
- Leslie became professor in Natural Philosophy in 1819 after the chair fell vacant on Playfair's death.
- He gave courses which were filled with experiments on specially made apparatus, for which Leslie himself had paid over half the cost from his own pocket.
- Leslie was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1807, a Corresponding Member of the French Academy of Sciences in 1820, and was knighted in 1832.
- As well as writing textbooks on mathematics and works on natural philosophy, Leslie anonymously translated Buffon's multivolume "Natural History" ..., contributed to a popular work on polar travel, and wrote for the Scottish-based "Edinburgh Encyclopaedia" and for the "Encyclopaedia Britannica".
- Leslie, who owned a townhouse in Edinburgh with fine library and beautiful paintings, purchased in addition an estate at Coates which is east of Largo, set back from the Fife coast but with a fine view over the Firth of Forth.
Born 17 April 1766, Largo, Fife, Scotland. Died 3 November 1832, Coates (near Largo), Fife, Scotland.
View full biography at MacTutor
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Thank you to the contributors under CC BY-SA 4.0!
Adapted from other CC BY-SA 4.0 Sources:
- O’Connor, John J; Robertson, Edmund F: MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive