Professor John Playfair, FRSE, lived from 10 March 1748 to 20 July 1819. He was Professor of Mathematics and later Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh and is best remembered for the work he did to popularise the work of the pioneering geologist, James Hutton. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
John Playfair was born at Benvie near Dundee, the oldest of the four sons of the Reverend James Playfair, the parish minister. His was a very talented family. One of his brothers was the architect, James Playfair, while another was the engineer and inventor of statistical graphics, William Playfair. James' son and John's nephew, the architect William Henry Playfair, went on to shape the Edinburgh of the 1800s, and was also responsible for the Playfair Monument erected in memory of John on Calton Hill in 1825.
John was educated at home until beginning his studies at St Andrews University in 1762. Four years later, at the age of 18, he applied for, and only narrowly failed to gain, an appointment as Professor of Mathematics at the Aberdeen's Marischal College. He was again unsuccessful when he applied for the post of Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of St Andrews in 1772. The following year he took over as minister of the parishes of Liff and Benvie on the death of his father, a post that apparently gave him the time to cultivate a wide range of friends among the scientific circles of the day in both Edinburgh and London.
In 1785 John Playfair succeeded Dugald Stewart as Professor of Mathematics at the University of Edinburgh. In 1802 Playfair published his most famous book, Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth, which was largely responsible for popularising the work of James Hutton, the founding father of geology, who had died in 1797. In 1805 Playfair became Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, and in the same year he became General Secretary of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.