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Significant Scots
William Leitch

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.

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