Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Buchan, Alexander

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

BUCHAN, ALEXANDER (1829–1907), meteorologist, born at Kinnesswood, Kinross-shire, on 11 April 1829, was the youngest of four children of Alexander Buchan, weaver, by his wife Margaret Kay Hill. At an early age he took a practical interest in field botany. Educated at the Free Church Training College, Edinburgh, he passed to the University of Edinburgh, where he graduated M.A. in 1848. He was schoolmaster or 'public teacher' at Banchory and Blackford, and subsequently became headmaster of the Free Church School at Dunblane. At Christmas 1860, owing to an affection of the throat which hampered his school work, he abandoned the teaching profession and was appointed secretary of the Scottish Meteorological Society, which had been founded in 1855 through the instrumentality of Dr. James Stark, head of the statistical department of the office of the Scottish registrar-general. Buchan devoted his life to the work of this office and to meteorological research or discussion. The mainstay of the society, he superintended a network of stations with a view to the compilation of meteorological statistics for the registrar-general for Scotland. To such duties was added the supervision of the weather journals of the lighthouses of the Board of Northern Lights, and of a separate series of rainfall stations. Except the lighthouses the Scottish stations were maintained by voluntary observers, generally noblemen and country gentlemen, to whom Buchan periodically paid visits of inspection. Under Buchan's direction the society inaugurated an observatory at the summit of Ben Nevis, which was in active operation from November 1883 till its abandonment for lack of funds in September 1904. In 1887 Buchan was appointed by the Royal Society of London a member of the meteorological council, which from 1877 to 1905 administered the parliamentary grant for meteorology and directed the operations of the meteorological office in London.

From 1878 to 1906 he was librarian and curator of the museum of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and thus came into constant relations with the chief Scottish men of science. He was secretary of the Royal Society Club, a social coterie of the fellows. Thomas Stevenson [q. v.], the lighthouse engineer, who was Buchan's colleague at the Meteorological Society as honorary secretary in 1871, became an intimate associate, while Stevenson's son, Robert Louis, was long another close friend.

In 1867 Buchan published in Edinburgh 'The Handy Book of Meteorology' (2nd edit. 1868), which became a recognised text-book all over the world. There followed in 1871 'Introductory Text-book of Meteorology.' Buchan and Dr. A. J. Herbertson prepared the comprehensive volume on meteorology for 'Bartholomew's Physical Atlas' (1899). But it was as the chief contributor to the 'Journal of the Scottish Meteorological Society' (in which appeared 66 papers) and as a frequent contributor to the 'Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh ' that Buchan's most valuable work, which touched every phase of climatology and meteorology, was done. His paper on ' Mean Pressure and Prevailing Winds of the Globe' (Roy. Soc. Edin. Trans. 1869) of which the Austrian meteorologist von Hann wrote 'It is even more important than ['The Distribution of Heat over the Surface of the Earth' (Berlin, 1852)] the celebrated work of Dove'—fully justifies Buchan's claim in behalf of meteorology that it should be regarded as the youngest of the sciences. The subject is developed further in his 'Report on Atmospheric Circulation, based on Observations made on Board H.M.S. Challenger and other Meteorological Observations' (Challenger Reports, 'Physics and Chemistry,' vol. ii. part 5, 1889). The numerous tables in the text co-ordinate a vast mass of data, and the fifty-two coloured maps show the mean temperature, isobaric lines, and prevailing winds over the globe, for each month of the year and for the year, while two plates of curves indicate the deviations at different hours of the day from the mean daily temperature, mean daily atmospheric pressure, wind velocity, and the like. Buchan's 'Report on Oceanic Circulation, based on Observations made on Board H.M.S. Challenger and other Observations,' which appeared in 1895, illustrates with equal thoroughness the mean annual specific gravity and the mean annual temperature at the surface of the ocean, as well as the temperature at various depths beneath the surface and at the bottom. These subjects are dealt with again in a paper on 'Specific Gravities and Oceanic Circulation' (Trans. Roy. Soc. Edinburgh, 1896, with nine maps), showing the specific gravities observed at the surface, and at various depths beneath the surface, of the ocean.

Of scarcely less value are the papers written for the Royal Society in conjunction with Sir Arthur Mitchell [q. v. Suppl. II] on the 'Influence of Weather on Mortality from different Diseases and at different Ages' and on 'Influenza and Weather in London.' According to Dr. von Hann other papers by Buchan on the relations between the distribution of atmospheric pressure and long continued weather-anomalies broke 'new ground for a sound advance of meteorology in central Europe.'

Buchan's merits were widely recognised in many ways. From the Royal Society of Edinburgh he received the Makdougall Brisbane medal in 1876 and the Gunning prize in 1893; Glasgow conferred upon him the honorary degree of LL.D. in 1887; he was elected F.R.S. in 1898, and in 1902 he was the first recipient of the medal founded by the Royal Meteorological Society of London in commemoration of George James Symons [q. v. Suppl. I]. Buchan's interests were varied. A skilled botanist, he was president of the Edinburgh Botanical Society in 1870-1. He had a profound appreciation for and knowledge of literature, particularly old English poets, dramatists, and historians. He was also an elder of St. George's United Free Church in Edinburgh. Buchan died on 13 May 1907 at 2 Dean Terrace, Edinburgh, and was buried at the Warriston cemetery. He married in 1864 Sarah, daughter of David Ritchie of Musselburgh; she died on 13 May 1900, leaving a son, A. Hill Buchan, who took up the profession of medicine.

[Contributions towards a Memorial Notice of Alexander Buchan, M.A., LL.D., F.R.S.; Journal of the Scottish Meteorological Society, 3rd series, vol. xiv. No. xxiv. 1907; Men and Women of the Time, 15th edition, 1899; Who's Who, 1907; Nature, 1907, lxxvi. 83.]

W. N. S.