Sir John Leslie lived from 10 April 1766 to 3 November 1832. He was a physicist and mathematician best remembered for his research into the properties of heat. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
John Leslie was born in Largo in Fife. After being educated in local schools, he became a student at the University of St Andrews. He then studied divinity at the University of Edinburgh until 1787. For the next two years he worked as a private tutor to a family in Virginia, before becoming tutor to Josiah Wedgwood's family in Staffordshire in 1791. While working for Wedgwood, Leslie became interested in experimental physics and also produced a translation from French of the Comte de Buffon's Natural History of Birds, which was published in nine volumes in 1793.
The income from the book gave him freedom to further his interests in experimental physics. He gave the first modern account of capillary action in 1802 and froze water using an air-pump in 1810, the first time anyone had produced ice artificially. He published many papers and articles during this period, and in 1804 he published his Experimental Inquiry into the Nature and Properties of Heat, for which he was awarded the Rumford Medal of the Royal Society of London. In 1805 John Leslie was elected to succeed John Playfair as Professor of Mathematics at the University of Edinburgh, despite opposition from some in the church. He went on to publish the two volumes of A Course of Mathematics. Meanwhile, he continued to publish papers on aspects of experimental physics.
In 1819, John Leslie was appointed to the post of Professor of Natural Philosophy at Edinburgh University. In 1823 he published the first volume of his Elements of Natural Philosophy. His main contributions to physics were do do with the properties of heat, and he invented a number of instruments intended better to allow him to explore those properties. These included the differential thermometer. He was elected to be a member of the Institute of France, and was knighted in 1832. Later that same year he died at Coates, his home near Largo.