Sir David Brewster, FRS, lived from 11 December 1781 to 10 February 1868. He was a renowned scientist who made a particular contribution in the field of optics. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
David Brewster was born in Jedburgh, where his father was rector of the local grammar school. At the age of 12 he went to the University of Edinburgh to study, his family thought, for the clergy. Brewster duly obtained his theology degree and qualified to become a church minister. He never did so, however, becoming increasingly interested in the physical properties of light.
Brewster went on to make a series of discoveries, sometimes in parallel with the likes of Etienne Louis Malus and Augustin Fresnel working in France. He was particularly engaged in the areas of the polarisation of light, of refraction and reflection, and the absorption of light. In 1812 he was awarded a degree by Marischal College, Aberdeen and in 1815 he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of London. He also achieved considerable popular recognition through his invention (or, perhaps, rediscovery) of the kaleidoscope. He also made significant improvements to the stereoscope.
From 1799 Brewster became a regular contributor to the Edinburgh Magazine, and from 1807 he edited the Edinburgh Encyclopedia. He later worked with Robert Jameson on the Edinburgh Philosophical Journal and the Edinburgh Journal of Science. In 1831 he published a short biography of Sir Isaac Newton, before producing the definitive account of the great man's life over 20 years later in 1855. Brewster was instrumental in forming the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and it first met in 1831, the year in which he was knighted for his contribution to science.
Later in his life he served as President of the British Association; as one of the eight foreign associates of the Institute of France; and as Principal of the University of Edinburgh. He died in 1868.