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Biography of John Robison

John Robison, courtesy of the Raeburn Collection of the University of Edinburgh
John Robison, courtesy of the Raeburn Collection of the University of Edinburgh

John Robison, MA 1756, LLD 1799, and Lecturer of Chemistry at the University of Glasgow, 1766-69. He was a Scottish physicist and mathematician.

Born at Boghall in 1739, son of a Glasgow merchant, Robison enrolled at the University in 1750, graduating MA in 1756, aged 18. At Glasgow, he found lasting inspiration in his professors, the prominent mathematician, Robert Simson, the classicist, and mathematician James Moor, and Robert Dick jnr, Professor of Natural Philosophy. Upon graduation, Robison also met and collaborated for the first time with Joseph Black and James Watt, and began publishing his earliest scientific works, the first of which an improved design for the Newcomen engine in 1757.

Professors Simson and Black provided Robison the reference on which he was appointed tutor to Admiral Charles Knowles’ son, Edward, in 1758. Robison also served as midshipman on board HMS Royal William, accompanying Knowles on General Wolfe’s Quebec Expedition. It was also on Knowles’ recommendation that Robison was sent to Jamaica with the Board of Longitude to test John Harrison's marine chronometer in 1762.

Robison returned to Glasgow and, on Black's recommendation, was appointed Lecturer of Chemistry at the University in 1766. A successful lecturer, Robison did find himself fined in 1769 for his share in a squabble with student, David Woodburn, who was expelled.

In 1770, Robison returned to work for Admiral Knowles as his private secretary in St Petersburg, where Knowles had been appointed by Catherine the Great to reform the Russian navy. By 1772, Robison had gained a professorship in mathematics at Kronstadt naval school, rising to the rank of colonel. With his resignation in 1774, Robison was granted a pension by Empress Catherine and elected as a foreign member of the Imperial Academy of Sciences in 1800.

Robison returned to Scotland in 1774 as Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, again on the recommendation of Joseph Black, and was appointed as the first General Secretary to the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1783-98).

Robison’s later work, and most popular publication, the Proofs of a Conspiracy Against All the Religions and Governments of Europe (1797) saw him honoured with LLD degrees from Princeton (1798) and the University of Glasgow (1799). As well as publishing his own scientific papers, Robison also published Joseph Black’s chemical lectures in Edinburgh in 1803.


Other Online Resources


John Robison
Born 4 February 1739.
Died 30 January 1805.
GU Degrees: MA, 1756; LLD, 1799;
University Link: Graduate, Honorary Graduate, Lecturer
Occupation categories: mathematicians; physicists
English snippet: Lecturer of Chemistry at the University (1766-69) Prominent Scottish physicist
Record last updated: 16th Nov 2012

Country Associations

Scotland Scotland, Boghall
Place of Birth

Scotland Scotland, Edinburgh
Place of Death

Canada Canada, Quebec

England England, London

Jamaica Jamaica, No Region

Russian Federation Russian Federation, St Petersburg

University Connections

University Roles