Swan, William (DNB00)

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SWAN, WILLIAM (1818–1894), professor of natural philosophy at St. Andrews, son of David Swan, engineer, and his wife, Janet Smith, was born in Edinburgh on 13 March 1818. His father having died in 1821, Swan became his mother's chief care. Carlyle, in quest of lodgings, found them in Mrs. Swan's house ‘at the north-east angle’ of Edinburgh, and admired her ‘fortitude and humble patience’ (Early Letters of Thomas Carlyle, ii. 7, ed. Norton). After school and college education in Edinburgh, Swan became a science tutor, and during 1850–2 was mathematical master in the free church normal school, Edinburgh. In 1855–9 he taught mathematics, natural philosophy, and navigation in the Scottish Naval and Military Academy, Edinburgh. In 1859 he was appointed professor of natural philosophy at St. Andrews, retiring in 1880 owing to failing health. Besides being a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Swan received the honorary degree of LL.D. from Edinburgh University in 1869, and from St. Andrews in 1886. He died at Shandon, Dumbartonshire, on 1 March 1894. On 1 June 1859 Swan married Georgina (d. 1882), daughter of John Cullen, a Glasgow manufacturer. There was no family.

Between 1843 and 1871 Swan contributed a score of papers on various subjects in physics—those on optics being specially important—to periodicals and the ‘Transactions’ of learned societies. Of these, two on the ‘Phenomena of Vision’ appeared in the Edinburgh Royal Society's ‘Transactions’ in 1849 and 1861; one in the ‘Transactions’ of the same society for 1856 described the ‘Prismatic Spectra of the Flames of Compounds of Carbon and Hydrogen;’ and one ‘On New Forms of Lighthouse Apparatus’ was contributed to the Edinburgh ‘Transactions’ of the Scottish Society of Arts. For the eighth edition of the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica’ Swan wrote the article ‘Mensuration.’ In ‘Nature’ (vol. iv.) he wrote on ‘Pendulum Autographs,’ and in vol. vii. he described the great meteoric shower of 27 Nov. 1872.

[Private information; J. L. Galbraith's Emeritus Professor; personal knowledge.]

T. B.