Popular Science Monthly/Volume 28/November 1885/Sketch of Sir Lyon Playfair

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IN Sir Lyon Playfair the British Association has for its president this year a gentleman who, to a thorough scientific training and a wide fame as a scientific man, unites a versatile adaptability to public affairs, and who has done many unquestionable services to the state in the lines of administration and of the advancement of great public questions. "He is eminent," says the writer of a sketch of him in an English paper, "as a scientific and practical chemist, a sanitary reformer, an educational reformer, a man of public business, an ex-minister, and late chairman of the Committee of Ways and Means in the House of Commons."

Dr. Playfair is a son of Mr. George Playfair, Chief Inspector-General of Hospitals of Bengal, and was born at Meerut, Bengal, May 21, 1819. He was taught at St. Andrews and afterward at Glasgow, where he studied chemistry under Sir Thomas Graham, till 1837, when he went to India for his health. Upon his return to England, with restored vigor, he rejoined Professor Graham, who was then in the London University, but soon after went to Giessen, where he continued his chemical studies, in the "organic" branch of the science, under Liebig, and translated some of that author's works into English. Upon his return to Scotland he became manager of the Messrs. Thompson's Calico-Printing Works at Clitheroe. In 1843 he was appointed Professor of Chemistry, succeeding Dalton, in the Royal Institution at Manchester. In the next year he was appointed, upon the recommendation of Sir Robert Peel, on the commission to examine into the sanitary condition of large towns and populous districts, on which subject he made reports which are described as characterized by great ability. This work done, he was appointed chemical professor in the Museum of Practical Geology in London. He was given an important part in the preparations for the Great Exhibition of 1851 in visiting the manufacturing districts, in the performance of which duty he drew up a classification of the objects of industry, and entered into personal communication with the manufacturers, whereby he exercised an important and beneficial influence, and contributed much to the completeness of the Exhibition. He was appointed, in connection with this undertaking, Special Commissioner in charge of the Department of the Juries, and at its close was made a Companion of the Bath and appointed to a position in the household of the Prince Consort. He was again given the Department of Juries in connection with the Exhibition of 1862, and had the appointment of the six hundred jurors; and in 1878 he was appointed chairman of the Finance Committee of the English Commission in the French Exhibition, under the presidency of the commission of the Prince of Wales. When the Department of Science and Art was established in 1853, he was appointed joint secretary with Mr. Henry Cole. Mr. Cole became secretary in 1856, and Dr. Playfair was made Inspector-General of Government Museums and Schools of Science. In 1857 he was elected President of the Chemical Society of London, and in 1858 was appointed Professor of Chemistry in the University of Edinburgh, where the Prince of Wales and Prince Alfred (now Duke of Edinburgh) enjoyed the privilege of his instructions.

He has served his country under official commissions, both in matters of scientific inquiry and in matters directly connected with political administration and legislation. Of the former classes of service may be mentioned his work in examining, in conjunction with Sir Henry de la Beche, into the suitableness of the coals of the United Kingdom for the purposes of the navy, his investigations into the causes of accidents in mines, and his services in the Royal Commissions on the Cattle Plague and on the Fisheries of the Scottish Coasts. The final outcome of the work of the last-named commission was the withdrawal of legislative restrictions on sea-fisheries. More intimately connected with politics, but still positions in which science has a part to perform, are or have been his positions as a member of Parliament, to which he was elected as a Liberal, in 1868, to represent the Universities of Edinburgh and St. Andrews; as Postmaster-General, to which he was appointed by Mr. Gladstone in 1873, and into which department "Nature" at the time expressed the hope that he would "endeavor to introduce something like scientific method"; as Privy Councilor; and as chairman of the Committee of Ways and Means and Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons. Of a character partly allied to scientific or, at least, educational work and partly with politics, and pre-eminently tributary to the public good and to scientific methods of administration was his work as President of the Civil Service Inquiry Commission of 1874, which resulted in the production of the elaborate scheme for the reorganization of the civil service, under the operation of which the British departmental administration has attained its present condition of high integrity and efficiency.

Pertinently to Sir Lyon Playfair's work in these lines, Lord Rayleigh, ex-president, said, in presenting him as its presiding officer to the Association at Aberdeen: "As a general rule, I should think that the desertion of active scientific work for politics was a step in the wrong direction; but, when one considers the valuable work done by Sir Lyon Playfair, the lucid manner in which he teaches our rather uninstructive legislators, the great influence he commands, and the valuable services he has rendered on many occasions, I feel that there are exceptions to the rule."

Professor Playfair's efforts have been unceasingly directed to promoting the improvement of the standards of education, and the adoption of more thorough and practical methods and objects in the teaching of the elementary and higher schools. Presiding at a meeting of a school-teachers' association in 1875, he referred to the subject of compulsory education, which was gradually becoming universal in the country, but which, he said, would be pure tyranny unless the education in the schools was increased and its quality raised. Quantity was all very good, but, unless quality accompanied it, there was not much gained. "If it was to be said that children of thirteen or fourteen years of age were merely to receive the same education as children of eight years of age, compulsory education would be but tyranny. Therefore, compulsory education involved higher education."

Of the direction toward which that increased and higher education should be pointed he made a clear and forcible statement in his address before the Educational Section of the Social Science Congress at Newcastle in 1870, when, having remarked that, "under our present system of elementary teaching, no knowledge whatever bearing on the life-work of the people reaches them by our system of state education," and that "the mere tools of education are put into the hands of children during their school-time without any effort being made to teach them to use the tools for any profitable purpose whatever, so they get rusty or are thrown away altogether," he unfolded his own views of the methods that should be pursued. "Books," he said, "ought only to be accessories, not principals. The pupil must be brought in face of the facts through experiment and demonstration. He should pull the plant to pieces and see how it is constructed. lie must vex the electric cylinder till it yields him its sparks. He must apply with his own hand the magnet to the needle. He must see water broken up into its constituent parts, and witness the violence with which its elements unite. Unless he is brought into actual contact with the facts, and taught to observe and bring them into relation with the science evolved from them, it were better that instruction in science should be left alone, for one of the first lessons he must learn from science is not to trust in authority, but to demand proof for each asseveration. . . . Such education," he added, "cannot be begun too early. The whole yearnings of a child are for the natural phenomena around, until they are smothered by the ignorance of the parent. He is a young Linnæus, roaming over the fields in search of flowers. He is a young conchologist or mineralogist, gathering shells or pebbles on the sea-shore. He is an ornithologist, and goes bird-nesting; an ichthyologist, and catches fish. Glorious education in nature all this, if the teacher knew how to direct and utilize it. . . . Do not suppose that I wish the primary school to be a lecture-theatre for all or any of the 'ologies.' All the science which would be necessary to give a boy a taste of the principles involved in his calling, and an incitement to pursue them in his future life, might be given in illustration of other subjects. . . . I deny that the utilitarian view of primary education is ignoble. The present system is truly ignoble, for it sends the working-man into the world in gross ignorance of everything he is to do in it. The utilitarian system is noble, in so far as it treats him as an intelligent being, who ought to understand the nature of his occupation and the principles involved in it. The great advantage of directing education toward the pursuits and occupations of the people, instead of wasting it on dismal verbalism, is that, while it elevates the individual, it at the same time gives security for the future prosperity of the nation."

In another address, delivered a few days afterward, he spoke of the "Inosculation of the Arts and Sciences," or how they mutually grow out of and build up one another, and of the intimate union between science and labor. "It is not science," he said, "which creates labor or the industries flowing from it. On the contrary, science is the progeny of the industrial arts on the one side, and on the other of the experiences and perceptions which gradually attach themselves to these arts, so that the evolution of science from the arts is the first circumstance of human progress, which, however, quickly receives development and impulse from the science thus evolved. Industrial Labor, then, is one of the parents, and Science the child; but, as often happens in the world, the son becomes richer than the father, and raises his position. . . . Science does not depend upon facts alone, but upon the increase of mental conceptions which can be brought to bear upon them; these conceptions increase as slowly as the common knowledge derived from experience—they both descend by inheritance from one generation to another, until science in its progress becomes a prevision of new knowledge by light reflected from the accumulated common knowledge of the past. In the progress of time common edge passes into scientific knowledge." An indication of one of the ways in which he would have this system put into operation is given in a letter he wrote to the officers of a London school suggesting the devotion of a certain property to the formation of chemical and scientific museums in relation to commerce. No boy enjoying the advantages of such a museum "need leave the upper classes of the school without being able to examine the various kinds of merchandise which he will meet with in his occupations, so far, at least, as would enable him to test chemically their relative excellences, or detect their adulterations. No boy need then leave the school without having had his physical and political geography copiously illustrated by objects of natural history, in their relation to the imports and exports, upon which the prosperity of the country so largely depends."

Professor Playfair is a member of numerous scientific and other societies, British and foreign, and of several foreign orders. Of his literary work, Lord Rayleigh remarked in introducing him to the British Association: "The other day, engaged in some work of my own, I happened to look up the catalogue of science papers issued by the Royal Society, and I came across the list of Sir Lyon Playfair's early contributions to science, most of them made before I was born or thought of. One was on the new fatty acid in the butter of nutmeg. Another was 'Lectures on the Application of Physiology to the Rearing and Feeding of Cattle.' A third was on nitro-prussids, a new class of salts; and a fourth on 'The Study of Abstract Science essential to the Progress of Industry.' "He edited, conjointly with W. Gregory, Baron Liebig's "Chemistry in its Applications to Agriculture and Physiology." Besides numerous scientific memoirs, be has published, on general subjects, "Science in its Relations to Labor," a speech delivered on the anniversary of the People's College at Sheffield, in 1853; "The Food of Man in Relation to his Useful Work," a lecture, 1865; "On Primary and Technical Education," two lectures, 1870; "On Teaching Universities and Examining Boards," an address to the Philosophical Institution of Edinburgh, 1872; "Universities in their Relation to Professional Education," an address to the St. Andrews Graduates' Association, 1873; and "The Progress of Sanitary Reform," an address delivered at the annual meeting of the Social Science Association at Glasgow, 1874.