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Kay's Edinburgh Portraits
Dr. James Hutton, Author of the "Theory of the Earth"


Dr. Hutton was an ingenious philosopher, remarkable for the unaffected simplicity of his manner, and much esteemed by the society in which he moved. In his dress he very much resembled a Quaker, with the exception that he wore a cocked hat. He was born in the city of Edinburgh, on the 3d June, 172G, and was the son of a merchant there, who died in the infancy of his son. He was educated at the High School; and, after going through the regular course at that seminary, he entered the University of Edinburgh in 1740. The original intention of his friends was, that he should follow the profession of a Writer to the Signet; and, with this view, he for some time pursued the course of study enjoined by the regulations of that Society, and accordingly attended the Humanity (or Latin) Class for two sessions. It would appear, however, that the early bent of his genius was directed towards chemistry; for, instead of prosecuting the study of the law, he was more frequently found amusing the clerks and apprentices in the office in which he had been placed, with chemical experiments. His master, therefore, with much kindness, advised him to select some other avocation more suited to his turn of mind ; he, accordingly, fixed on medicine, and returned to the University. Here, during three sessions, he attended the requisite classes, but did not graduate. He repaired to Paris, and spent two years in that city. On his way home he passed through Leyden, and there took the degree of Doctor of Medicine, in the month of September, 1749.

Meanwhile he had formed, in London, an intimate acquaintance with Mr. John Davie. They entered into a co-partnership, and engaged in the manufacture of sal-ammoniac from coal-soot, which was carried on in Edinburgh for many years with considerable success. From his peculiar habits he had little chance of getting into practice as a doctor of medicine, and he appears to have relinquished the idea very early. He determined to betake himself to agriculture: for this purpose he resided for some time with a farmer in the county of Norfolk; and, in the year 1754, bringing a plough and a ploughman from England, he took into his own hands a small property which he possessed in Berwickshire. Having brought his farm into good order, and not feeling the same enthusiasm for agriculture which he had previously entertained, he removed to Edinburgh about the year 1768, and devoted himself almost exclusively to scientific pursuits.

In 1777, Dr. Hutton's first book, entitled, "Considerations on the Nature, Quality, and Distinctions of Coal and Culm," was given to the world. He next published an outline of his "Theory of the Earth," in the first volume of the "Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh." Dr. Hutton had, during a long course of years, accumulated a variety of facts in support of his theory—having undertaken journeys not only through Scotland, but also through England and Wales, and different parts of the continent of Europe. In the same volume he published another paper, entitled, "A Theory of Rain." This theory met with a vigorous opposition from M. de Luc, and became a subject of controversy, which was conducted with much warmth.

In 1792 he published "Dissertations on different subjects in Natural Philosophy," in which his theory for explaining the phenomena of the material world seems to coincide very closely with that of Boscovich, though there is no reason to suppose that the former was suggested by the latter.

Dr. Hutton next turned his attention to the study of metaphysics, the result of which he gave to the public in a voluminous work, entitled, "An Investigation of the Principles of Knowledge, and of the Progress of Reason from Sense to Science and Philosophy." 3 vols. 4to. Edinburgh, 1794. While engaged in its publication he was seized with a daugerous illness, from which he never entirely recovered. In 1794 appeared his "Dissertation upon the Philosophy of Light, Heat, and Fire," 8vo. In 1796, his "Theory of the Earth" was republished in 2 vols., with large additions, and a new Mineralogical system. Many of his opinions were ably combated by Kirwan and others.

Professor Playfair, who had adopted the leading doctrines of the Doctor's theory, published, in 1802, a work entitled, "Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth." A short time before his death the Doctor wrote a work on Agriculture, which was intended to form 4 vols. 8vo. The MS. was recently in existence.

A second Print represents Dr. Black and Dr. Hutton, who were for a long series of years most intimate and attached friends, conversing together. Their studies and pursuits were iu many respects intimately connected, and upon different subjects of philosophical speculation they had frequently opposite opinions, but this never interrupted the harmony of their personal friendship. They were remarkable for their simplicity of character, and almost total ignorance of what was daily passing around them in the world. An amusing illustration of this will be found in the following anecdote :—

Several highly respectable literary gentlemen proposed to hold a convivial meeting once a week, and deputed two of their number, Doctors Black and Hutton, to look out for a suitable house of entertainment to meet in. The two accordingly sallied out for this purpose, and seeing on the South Bridge a sign with the words, " Stewart, vintner, down stairs," they immediately went into the house and demanded a sight of their best room, which was accordingly shown to them, and which pleased them much. Without further inquiry, the meetings were fixed by them to be held in this house; and the club assembled there during the greater part of the winter, till one evening Dr. Hutton, being rather late, was surprised, when going in, to see a whole bevy of well-dressed but somewhat brazen-faced young ladies brush past him, and take refuge in an adjoining apartment. He then, for the first time, began to think that all was not right, and communicated his suspicions to the rest of the company. Next morning the notable discovery was made, that our amiable philosophers had introduced their friends to one of the most noted houses of bad fame in the city!!

These attached friends agreed in their opposition to the usual vulgar prejudices, aud frequently discoursed together upon the absurdity of many generally received opinions, especially in regard to diet. On one occasion they had a disquisition upon the inconsistency of abstaining from feeding on the testaceous creatures of the land, while those of the sea were considered as delicacies. Snails, for instance—why not use them as articles of food? They were well known to be nutritious and wholesome—even sanative in some cases. The epicures, in olden time, esteemed as a most delicious treat the snails fed in the marble-quarries of Lucca. The Italians still hold them in esteem. The two philosophers, perfectly satisfied that their countrymen were acting most absurdly in not making snails an ordinary article of food, resolved themselves to set an example; and, accordingly, having procured a number, caused them to be stewed for dinner. No guests were invited to the banquet. The snails were in due season served up ; but, alas ! great is the difference between theory and practice—so far from exciting the appetite, the smoking dish acted in a diametrically opposite manner, and neither party felt much inclination to partake of its contents ; nevertheless, if they looked on the snails with disgust, they retained their awe for each other; so that each, conceiving the symptoms of internal revolt peculiar to himself, began with infinite exertion to swallow, in very small quantities, the mess which he internally loathed. Dr. Black at length broke the ice, but in a delicate manner, as if to sound the opinion of his messmate:— "Doctor," he said, in his precise and quiet manner, "Doctor, do you not think that they taste a little—a very little queer?" "---------queer! ---------queer, indeed!—tak them awa', tak them awa'! " vociferated Dr. Hutton, starting up from table, and giving full vent to his feelings of abhorrence.

Dr. Hutton's health had begun to decline in 1792; and, as before mentioned, he was seized with a severe illness during the summer of 1793, which, after some intervals of convalescence, terminated at last in his death, upon the 26th March, 1797, having written a good deal in the course of the same day. He died, like his friend Dr. Black, a bachelor.


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