Forbes, James David

Alternative names

Hide Profile

Epithet: DCL

British Library Archives and Manuscripts Catalogue : Person : Description : ark:/81055/vdc_100000001242.0x0002fe

Balfour Stewart was born in Edinburgh on 1 November 1828. He was educated in Dundee, at St. Andrews University and then at Edinburgh University. At the latter, he attended the lectures of Professor James David Forbes (1809-1868). For a time he worked in the office of a Leith merchant and went to Australia on business in 1855. There he acquired a taste for physical science and contributed a couple of articles to the Philosophical Society in Victoria, Australia. When he returned to Britain in 1856 he became an assistant observer at the Kew Observatory, and later on that year an assistant to Forbes in Edinburgh where he conducted research on radiant heat under Forbes' influence. In 1859 he was appointed Director at Kew and devoted himself to the study of meteorology and terrestrial magnetism. During a great magnetic disturbance in 1859, Stewart put forward the view that aurorae, magnetic storms, and earth-currents were due to 'variations in a primary electric current in the sun'. Stewart also investigated the pressure of a given volume of air, a re-determination of the density of mercury, and sun spots. In July 1870 he was appointed Professor of Natural Philosophy at the then Owens College, Manchester (University of Manchester). Professor Balfour Stewart died at Ballymagarvey, near Drogheda on 19 December 1887.

From the guide to the Work of Professor Balfour Stewart (1828-1887), 1845-1846, (Edinburgh University Library)

James David Forbes (1809-1868), Scottish scientist and traveller, Professor of Natural Philosophy at Edinburgh University 1833-1859 and Principal of the United College, St Andrews 1859-1868.

James David Forbes was born in Edinburgh on 20 April 1809, the youngest of six children of Sir William Forbes of Pitsligo and Williamina Belsches. After his birth his mother went to Lympston in Devon because of her health, dying there in December 1810. He was brought up at the family home at Colinton House, four miles from the centre of Edinburgh, and at his father's town house at 86 George Street and attended the village school at Colinton. Two of his brothers went into the army, a third into the family bank in Edinburgh, whilst James David was destined to become a lawyer. He went to Edinburgh University in 1825 at the age of 16, but studied science in secret as well as his official studies. Although he qualified as an advocate, he never practised.

In 1826 Forbes began an anonymous scientific correspondence with David Brewster. After the death of his father in 1828 Forbes was able to abandon his anonymity, and after much heart-searching and consultation with relatives and friends, took the decision to leave the bar and make a career in science, finally abandoning his legal career in 1830. The same year the family moved from Colinton to Greenhill, on the south side of Bruntsfield Links, near Edinburgh. James David lived here with his two sisters and two surviving brothers (the oldest brother, William, had died in 1826). Charles married in 1833, and the following year the oldest brother, John, married and chose to settle on his estate at Fettercairn, Kincardineshire. As a result James David and his sisters moved to the Dean House, close to the north side of Edinburgh.

James David's sister Eliza died in 1840, and the following year he and Jane had to move out of the Dean House. In 1843 he married Alicia Wauchope (1822-1885), the daughter of a Leith wine merchant, with whom he had three daughters, Eliza (1844-1869), Williamina (1845-1870) and Alice (1852-1926), and two sons Edmund Batten (1847-1924) and George (1849-1936).

James David Forbes first went abroad with a family party in 1826, a trip which including a visit to Vesuvius, the active volcano near Naples. In 1832 he returned to the continent, but the trip was cut short when he learned of the death of John Leslie, and returned to put his name forward to succeed Leslie in the chair of Natural Philosophy at Edinburgh University, a post which he held until he moved to St Andrews. Forbes subsequently explored the Pyrenees, and spent the summers of 1841 and 1842 in the Alps, publishing a book about his travels the following year. In 1845 he visited the western highlands and islands of Scotland, and Skye in particular. He visited the Alps again in 1850, and Norway in 1851. Forbes was one of the first to describe regular journeys above the snowline. He made numerous minor ascents (as well as the first British ascent of the Jungfrau) in the Alps and Norway. He employed Auguste Balmat on research into glacier movement and was involved with Tyndall in the great glacier controversy of the 1850s. He was the first Honorary Member of the Alpine Club.

After 1851 his health prevented further trips to the mountains, and without the stimulation provided by field-work he lost much of his enthusiasm for science. Forbes had increasing problems relating to his employment at Edinburgh University, and needed the change offered by the post of principal of the United College of St Salvator and St Leonard at St Andrews, to which he was appointed in 1859. Though he was very reluctant to leave Edinburgh, once the family was settled in St Andrews, Forbes seems to have flourished as an administrator and taken to the town and its climate. He held the post until he resigned through ill health in October 1868, two months before his death.

For further biographical details see: D.N.B. .

From the guide to the Papers of James David Forbes, 1785-1968, (University of St Andrews)

Relation Name
associatedWith Airy George Biddell 1801-1892 person
associatedWith Arago, Dominique Francois Jean person
correspondedWith Bache, Alexander Dallas person
associatedWith Beck, T. Romeyn person
associatedWith Brewster David 1781-1868 person
associatedWith British Association for the Advancement of Science corporateBody
correspondedWith Faraday, Michael person
correspondedWith Fletcher, Alexander + Co. person
associatedWith Forbes James David 1809-1868 person
associatedWith Hansteen, Christopher person
correspondedWith Hare, Robert person
correspondedWith Henry, Joseph, 1797-1878 person
correspondedWith Herschel, John, Sir person
correspondedWith Maxwell, J. C. person
associatedWith Murchison Roderick Impey 1792-1871 Sir 1st Baronet Geologist person
associatedWith Olmsted, Denison person
associatedWith Potter, Alonzo person
correspondedWith Quetelet, A. person
associatedWith Royal Society (Great Britain) corporateBody
associatedWith Royal Society of Edinburgh corporateBody
correspondedWith Silliman, Benjamin, Sr. person
associatedWith Stewart Balfour 1828-1887 person
associatedWith Turnbull, John person
correspondedWith Tyndall, John person
associatedWith University of Edinburgh corporateBody
associatedWith University of St Andrews corporateBody
associatedWith Whewell William 1794-1866 person
Place Name Admin Code Country
Edinburgh (Scotland)
St Andrews (Scotland)
Natural history
Scientific publications





Ark ID: w6jr107w

SNAC ID: 15298164