Science and Medicine in the Scottish Enlightenment

By Charles W. J. Withers; Paul Wood | Go to book overview

11
Late Enlightenment Science and Generalism:
The Case of Sir George Steuart Mackenzie
of Coui, 1780–1848

CHARLES D. WATERSTON

George Steuart Mackenzie, 7th Baronet of Coul, was born in Edinburgh on 22 June 1780, the only child of Sir Alexander Mackenzie, Major-General in the Bengal Army, and Katherine Ramsay, daughter of a Leith merchant.1 Educated men of the late Enlightenment were expected ‘to reflect on the basis of knowledge’ and see science as an intellectual pursuit with direct social implications.2 Education in Scotland therefore shunned premature specialisation so that scholars might have the breadth of learning to fulfil these expectations. For Mackenzie, one branch of learning was informed and counterbalanced by another. His writings on chemistry, agriculture, geology, archaeology and phrenology; his improvement of his estate with its social implications and consequences; his promotion of institutional scientific endeavour: all embrace features that characterised intellectual enquiry in the Scottish Enlightenment.

Yet, during Mackenzie’s lifetime, the generalism of the gentleman scholar yielded to specialism, regional emphasis and professionalism. This change has been charted by many historians. In a European context, Roger Hahn introduced the concept of a second scientific revolution occurring at the beginning of the nineteenth century that involved specialisation and professionalisation.3 Of particular relevance to Mackenzie was that specialisation in the natural sciences that Susan Faye Cannon has seen as beginning from the 1830s.4 While J.R.R. Christie characterised the intellectual culture of the Scottish Enlightenment as generalist, he also recognised that that view was challenged by the emergence of specialisms in the early nineteenth century.5 Roger L. Emerson, however, traced the rise of the specialist and decline of the generalist in Scottish science to well before Mackenzie’s time.6 Specialist terms may be misused, however, in describing Enlightenment scholars. To call James Hutton a geologist or Joseph Black a chemist is to ignore the agricultural and philosophical writings of the former and neglect the geological and medical interests of the latter and so diminish both. In the same way, Mackenzie’s work has been described by specialists in terms of their own discipline, and they have ignored, or been unaware of, his contribution to others.

Although a full exposition of Mackenzie’s work cannot be given here, this chapter signals the breadth of his accomplishments and seeks to restore

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