William Leitch graduated from
the University of Glasgow BA 1837, MA 1838, and was awarded an honorary
degree of DD in 1860. He was also Observatory Assistant to Professor John
Pringle Nichol as a student.
William Leitch was born at Rothsay, the Isle of Bute, in 1814 to John Leitch,
a customs officer, and Margaret Sharp. At the age of 14 a serious accident
confined William to his room for many months, during which he took up the
study of mathematics and science. He attended the grammar school at Greenock
before entering the University of Glasgow.
Leitch first attended the University in 1831 and studied subjects such as
Greek, 1831-32; Logic, 1832-33; and Ethics, 1833-34. He may have been
classmates with William Thomson in some of these subjects. He was a very
successful student, winning a number of prizes over the course of his
studies. He placed first in his class in 1835 in Natural Philosophy: “for
propriety of conduct, exemplary diligence and display of eminent abilities
in Examinations on the subjects of the Lectures, and in Essays and
Investigations in Physical Science” and was joint second in Divinity Class,
1836. He also won essay prizes such as: “For the best account of the recent
improvements and applications of the Steam Engine, as a propelling power” in
1837 and a prize for an “essay on the Construction, Methods of Adjustment
and Formulae for the Correction of the Transit Instrument, accompanied and
illustrated by a List of actual Observations made by the writer in the
Observatory” for Practical Astronomy class. He came third in his Natural
History class in 1838.
As a student William lectured on Astronomy and was the Observatory Assistant
to Professor John Pringle Nichol. William Leitch graduated from the
University of Glasgow with a BA 1837, with the highest honours in
mathematics and science, and an MA in 1838.
After graduating from the University of Glasgow, Leitch spent two years at
the University of Glasgow Divinity Hall and was licensed to preach as a
minister of the Church of Scotland in 1839. In 1843 he was ordained and
presented by the Earl of Leven to the parish of Monimail in the presbytery
of Cupar. He was Minister of Monimail from 1843-59 and the University of
Glasgow conferred the degree of DD upon him in 1860.
In 1859 two trustees of Queen’s College at Kingston, Canada, were sent to
Scotland to find a suitable successor for the retiring Principal, Reverend
John Cook. The General Assembly recommended William Leitch to them and he
was appointed Principal of Queen’s on 9 November 1859. He was inaugurated on
8 November 1860. He was pleased with the quality of students there and he
did much to develop the theological faculty during his term. Leitch retained
his interest in science throughout his life and under his leadership,
Queen’s managed the local observatory and arranged public lectures for
astronomy and other scientific subjects.
Leitch’s ongoing research into science
throughout his life, and his great interest in astronomy in particular, led
him to develop the idea that rockets could fly in space, and could do so
more smoothly outside the Earth’s atmosphere. In 1862 Leitch published his
best known work God’s Glory in the Heavens in which he set out these
theories: four years earlier than Jules Verne’s visions of space travel in
his 1865 novel From Earth to the Moon.
Amongst other scientific work, Leitch was also involved in establishing a
botanical garden in Kingston and founding the Botanical Society of Canada in
1860, of which we was President in 1861.
William Leitch died in 1864 at Kingston, Canada, and is buried in Kingston,
a few yards away from Canada's First Prime Minister. There is a monument at
Monimail, Fifeshire, Scotland, paid for by his friends and on the site of
the graves of his wife and children.