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Significant Scots
James Dinwiddie


This is an account of the career of James Dinwiddie (1746–1815). First published in 1868 by Dinwiddie's grandson William Jardine Proudfoot, the work is based on Dinwiddie's own autobiographical notes, travel logbook and personal correspondence. The biography traces Dinwiddie's career from the scientific lectures he gave from 1781 and the journal series Queries and Hints, which he began in 1779, to his visit to the Chinese imperial court as official astronomer in Lord Macartney's mission (1792–1794); his residence in Beijing and Canton; and his move to India, where he was appointed Professor of Mathematics, Natural Philosophy and Chemistry at the College of Fort William, Bengal. Dinwiddie's career was marked by passionate commitment to the dissemination of scientific knowledge – his travels, lectures and publications were undertaken for this cause. His life is a fascinating account of a polymathic mind which will fascinate and entertain a modern-day readership.

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Natural science is unquestionably one of the grandest subjects of human investigation. The pursuits of literature or the fine arts, however pleasing in themselves, fall short in comparison of the sublime truths unfolded by the material universe. Whether soaring into illimitable space, or descending the scale of nature to view the world of wonders displayed in a single drop of stagnant water, the mind becomes -everywhere stored with rich and exalted ideas, and loses those narrow prejudices which but too frequently arise from local habits or a contracted education. The man on whom this study has its due influence receives the clearest insight into the problem of his own existence. He considers himself as a citizen of the world, and looks upon every man, of whatever country, color, qr creed, with the most impartial eye; he cannot, in fact, but be a good man.

Curiosity, the principal motive to this study, is more or less in the minds of all men; but it is so implanted in some as to abstract them from every other pursuit, and engage them in intellectual researches by a thirst after knowledge which no discovery can quench—which success inflames the more. When .Descartes had taken a survey of all the employments of men, in order to choose a profession, he became persuaded that he could not do better than devote his whole life to investigating the truth. The value, however, of any character docs not depend so much on what a man knows, but what he can do. Knowledge which terminates in itself is but an amusement; at the same time it is the amusement becoming a man—a gentleman—one improvement of all; and these objects ought to be considered as the great end of the study of natural philosophy.

The career of James Dinwiddie is a singular instance of devotion to science. Born in a humble sphere, with only his own perseverance to carry him forward in the world, he stemmed the torrents of an adverse fortune till he became the most popular lecturer of the day. For variety and extent of learning he was believed to have been unsurpassed; but little, however, is known of him beyond that he spent a long and active life in diffusing the knowledge he had accumulated. That the memory of such an individual should pass away with his generation has been often regretted by his friends, and to trace his career is the object of the following Memoir, which is attempted to be drawn from his manuscripts and correspondence alone. It is rather unfortunate that so much time has elapsed, and that these papers, which are the only sources of information, are often so effaced or mutilated as to afford little or no assistance whatever in elucidating the subject in view; and how far this compilation will bear out the observations hazarded above will depend on the judgment of a discerning reader.

W. J. P.

Biographical Memoir of James Dinwiddie, L.L.D.,
Astronomer in the British Embassy to China, 1792, '3, '4, Afterwards Professor of Natural Philosophy in the College of Fort William, Bengal

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