Chemist, Liberal Politician – Committed Advocate for Technical Education
Born in Bengal India where his father was the Chief Inspector-General of Hospitals. He returned to Scotland to live with his uncle and received his school education in St Andrew’s. He enrolled at the University of St Andrews at the age of 14 but found the courses uninspiring and after leaving the university entered his uncle’s commercial business but again found this unfulfilling. In 1835 he studied medicine at the Andersons/Andersonian College in Glasgow but quickly became very interested in chemistry being greatly influenced by one of his tutors namely Thomas Graham (1805-1869) and as a result devoted more time to chemistry than medicine. After Graham left Glasgow to go to University College London Playfair moved from Glasgow to Edinburgh University to continue his medical studies. Unfortunately ill health caused him to discontinue his studies and he returned to India to help in his fathers business but he soon became bored and returned to London to work with Thomas Graham.
It was at this time he decided to make a career in science and following Graham’s advice went to Germany to study at Giessen in Justus von Liebig’s (1803-1873) laboratory. He received a PhD in Chemistry and returned to Britain in 1840 very fluent in German and a great supporter of the Germany system of science and technical education and this would continue to be a great influence in his subsequent career. He worked briefly at the Primrose calico works at Clitheroe and after its closure undertook unpaid lecturing at the short-lived Manchester Royal Institution. He was offered a chair in chemistry at Toronto but was talked out of accepting it be the then Prime Minister Robert Peel. After another lecturing stint at Manchester he was then involved in some research into the composition of gases from blast furnaces and carried out this in conjunction with the famous German chemist Robert Bunsen (1811-1899). It was at this time that the government asked him to become involved in a series of Royal Commissions something which occupied him throughout his remaining life. The Royal Commissions included ones studying the potato famine in Ireland and the state of the toilets at Buckingham Palace. Whilst working at the Geological Survey Playfair carried out some fundamental chemical research into a group of salts that subsequently were used to help vascular disorders.
One of his most significant government appointments was made in 1850 as Special Commissioner as well as the honorary secretary to the Commission for the Great Exhibition that was to be housed in the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park [see chapter history regarding the Great Exhibition]. Following the success of the Great Exhibition held in 1851 Playfair became great friends with the Prince Consort (1819-1861) who himself as a German citizen and educated in Germany shared a commitment to technical education and provided significant support to advocates of technical education during his life. The profits made from the Great Exhibition were used to purchase the grounds on which the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Albert Hall and Imperial College were subsequently built.
In 1852 Playfair was appointed joint secretary of the newly created Department of Science and Art (DSA) that was part of then Board of Trade where he very actively promoted the development of technical education. But his political work achieved little and he left his part-time government role in 1858 and took a chair in chemistry at the University of Edinburgh. He carried out little chemistry research but focused his energies on reforming the teaching of chemistry and the university’s administration. He was president of the Chemical Society (now the Royal Society of Chemistry) between 1857 and 1859 and as his involvement in chemistry declined he resigned his chair at Edinburgh in 1868 and decided to enter politics full-time. He was eventually elected as a Liberal member of parliament for the Universities of Edinburgh and St. Andrews. Lyon Playfair held a number of senior positions in government including Postmaster General, Vice-President of the Council of Education and Deputy Speaker of the House and continued to speak on issues associated with education and public health. He was knighted in 1883 and then represented Leeds South from 1885 to 1892. After his peerage he took his seat in the Lords in 1892.
In 1864 he proposed to the Senate of Edinburgh University the introduction of Science degrees. The Senate agreed and degrees were offered in five areas namely; Mental Science, Philology, Natural Science, Mathematical Science and Physical Science.
One fascinating aspect of Playfair was that he was a noted and practicing scientist, a rare figure in politics, most certainly then and sadly still a rarity. In 1885 he was President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Playfair travelled extensively in Europe and America where what he witnessed showed how poorly the performance of the English technical education system compared. He wrote a letter to the Schools Inquiry Commission (1867) chaired by Lord Taunton highlighting the weaknesses in manufacturing and mechanical industry and instruction in this country and made a strong plea for this to be considered by the Commission. Unsurprisingly as with many other visionaries his pronouncements went largely unheeded and little progress was made in the development of technical education.
On his return from the Paris Exhibition in 1867 where Britain had performed relatively poorly he stated: “ The one cause of this inferiority upon which there was most unanimity”, he said, “is that France, Prussia, Austria, Belgium and Switzerland possess good systems of industrial education for the masters and managers of factories and that England possesses none” This decline could be seen by comparing the number of palms of excellence awarded to Britain at the Great Exhibition (1851) and that in Paris (1867). In 1851 Britain exhibited in 100 different departments and was awarded the palm in the majority whilst in 1867 only 10 were awarded out of 90 department entries. Even though the Great Exhibition was a significant stimulus to the promotion of science and technology in Britain it failed to be sustained being let down by a weak system of technical education. Playfair continued to sound the alarm bells about the future of Britain’s international industrial competitiveness and performance and predicted the emergence of America and Germany as the major competitors to Britain.
He wrote and lectured extensively on science, education, public health and social welfare issues. One fascinating and recurring theme he raised was that although Britain initially possessed an advantage because of cheap and readily available resources, ultimately the final victory in industrial power and performance would be with nations that commanded the greatest scientific skills. He continued to have a great ally in Prince Albert, who had studied in Germany and maintained a strong lasting interest and support for science and technology. Indeed it was Albert who requested that Playfair tour Europe to study first hand technical education. One of his greatest supporters and someone who continued to lobby for science and technology was the great scientist Thomas Huxley (1825-1895) (see biography on this website). In spite of all the efforts of these visionaries little progress or improvement was made in the quality of technical and scientific education. Playfair spent most of his life as an advisor for the government extolling the importance of scientific and technical education and actively promoting industry to adopt the advances in science and technology. Playfair was a remarkable individual not only as a scientist, politician but also one of the first who correctly advocated the crucial role that technical education would play in the future wealth of any country – a prophet, and a man well before his time.
Reid. W. ‘Memoirs and Correspondence of Lyon Playfair.’ Cassell. 1899.
Armytage. W.H.G. ‘Lyon Playfair and Technical Education in Britain.’ Nature. 161. Pages 752-753. May 1948.
Jones. R. V. Nature. Pages 105-111. 1963