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Good Words 1860
In Memoriam - Professor George Wilson

George Wilson was a native of Edinburgh, where he was born on the 21st of February 1818. As a child he was characterised by a quiet, studious habit, and a precocious love of books, as well as by quick sensibility and many noble moral qualities. His parents, fully estimating the value of education, gladly availed themselves of the facilities, which this city so plentifully affords, to secure that inestimable boon to their children. Having finished his elementary training, he was sent to the High School, and went through the course usually pursued in that venerable and illustrious seminary, if not with pre-eminent distinction, yet in a manner highly creditable to his diligence and abilities. From the High School he passed to the University, where he soon found a congenial sphere for his tastes and talents in the study of physical science. Having adopted the profession of medicine, less, it is believed, with a view to practice, than because it brought him more directly into relation with his favourite scientific pursuits, he went through the necessary course for qualifying himself for that profession. On finishing his college studies, he accepted the situation of assistant to Mr Graham, then Professor of Chemistry in University College, London, and now Master of the Mint. In this situation he remained about a year, when he returned to Edinburgh, where he took his degree of M.D., and where he continued to reside up to the time of his death.

Up to this point Dr Wilson presented no other appearance than that of a diligent, enthusiastic, and highly-gifted student of science, whose private character was stained by no vice, and in whose spirit and bearing there was much that was noble and winning. But as yet there was no evidence that the depths of his soul had been stirred by those considerations of spiritual and religious interest which alone have power to touch man's innermost being, and to evoke his higher nature to its full nobleness. He had, it is true, been religiously brought up; his early life had been spent amid the hallowing influences of domestic piety; and at times, no doubt, there had passed over a mind so impressible and loving as his, trains of emotion and conviction of a religious kind— shadows cast upon his spirit by those "powers of the world to come," with which the teaching of the nursery and the pulpit had alike conspired to make him acquainted. But as yet divine and eternal things had taken no firm and paramount hold upon him. He had never felt himself brought into earnest personal contact with the awful realities of the spiritual world. God was for him a doctrine— a world-power—perhaps little beyond a venerable name; as yet he had no realising sense of Him as the Being "with whom he had to do"—the merciful Father who had, ever since he was born, been watching over him and seeking to draw him to Himself—the holy and righteous Sovereign, who "cannot look upon sin," and whose law cannot be violated with impunity by any of His creatures. A student of God's works, and not ignorant of His Word, he as yet stood only in the outer court of the temple of divine truth; the veil had yet to be parted that hung between him and the mysteries of its inner shrine; and there needed a power to be put forth to draw him with meet reverence and trustful confidence into the presence of Him who is there revealed.

It pleased God, whose "judgments are a great deep," to make use of affliction as the means of awakening the mind of Dr Wilson to the consideration of the things that concerned his eternal state. Called to undergo a painful operation, and one which his medical knowledge told him was attended with imminent risk of life, he suddenly felt himself brought face to face with the question of his relation to God, into whose immediate presence he might, ere many hours had passed, be summoned to "give account of the deeds done in the body." His first earnest look into himself, and his state as before God, was painful in the extreme. All appeared to him dark and unpropitious. He felt that he was not at peace with God. Neglected instructions, forgotten warnings, despised opportunities, convictions and impressions lightly superseded, crowded on his mind. He saw nothing before him, should he now be called to the judgment-seat of the Omniscient, but the righteous condemnation of a forgotten and offended God. His mental conflict became almost overwhelming; but he manfully strove to realise his state—to estimate his true position, cost what it might. With deep earnestness, as of a man whose all was at stake, he betook himself to the Word of God; and from the time that conviction first laid hold of his mind, he hardly remitted his study of it until the moment when he had to submit himself to the surgeon's hands. Happily, in the providence of God, there was one near him at that crisis of his history, who, though young in years, was able to deal skilfully with his spiritual malady. A student of divinity, with whom, shortly before, he had become acquainted, learning his state, felt impelled to devote himself to his service, and became, for a season, his almost constant companion. He read the Scriptures to him, as he lay on his couch, talked to him of the love of God, and the Saviour's willingness and power to save, prayed with him, soothed and cheered him in moments of depression and suffering, and in every possible way rendered him the kindest offices of a warm-hearted, self-denying friendship. The gentle and kindly spirit of the sufferer expanded under the genial influences of such treatment. As health and strength returned, his mind opened gradually to the full power of the saving truths of the gospel; and a bond of profound and undying intimacy was knit between him and his kind instructor, which the intercourse of after years might prove, but could hardly strengthen. In due time he came forth from his chamber, maimed, indeed, for life, and with his health irreparably broken, but having found that for which a man may well part with all that he hath, and the loss of which a world could not compensate.

It was some time after this that I had the happiness of becoming acquainted with Dr Wilson, and ultimately he placed himself under my ministry, and joined the church under my pastoral care. In the presence of many who were thus brought into close spiritual fellowship with him, I need not to say how blamelessly he walked in the ordinances of the Lord; how wisely and piously he behaved himself in the house of God; with what anxious regard for the opinions and feelings of others he pursued his course; and how ready he was at all times to lend his aid to the furtherance of everything that tended to promote the efficiency of the church, or to diffuse knowledge or enjoyment amongst its members. Very pleasant was his presence amongst us; and, now that he is gone, a blank has been created in our ranks which all feel will not readily be filled.

Having at an early period addicted himself to the study of chemistry, Dr Wilson selected the teaching of this science as his vocation in life. In this department he soon gained wide and well-founded reputation. His thorough mastery of his subject, alike in its principles and its details; his power of lucid statement, graphic description, and felicitous illustration; his command of a copious and elegant style; the accuracy of his analysis, and the skill with which he prepared and conducted experiments: conspired speedily to elevate him to a foremost place as a lecturer on the valuable and fascinating science to which he had consecrated his energies. For several years he continued to teach it; first in the School of Arts, afterwards along with this in the extra Academical Medical School in this city; besides giving frequent lectures and courses of lectures of a popular kind on branches of his science at the Philosophical Institution and elsewhere, as his strength and regular engagements permitted. His merits as a man of science and a scientific teacher at length attracted the attention of those in power, and when the Professorship of Technology was created in the University in 1855, Dr Wilson was appointed to occupy that chair, as to him had been intrusted the formation and the Directorship of the Industrial Museum, which it was resolved to collect for the purpose of promoting the culture of scientific industry in this country. Thus, without any of those advantages which wealth or patronage confer, by sheer dint of talents usefully directed, and labour perseveringly employed, he had gained for himself a place of honour and influence in that illustrious seat of learning which, two and twenty years before, he had entered as a humble student without any "extrinsic advantages."

To the duties of his new sphere, Dr Wilson devoted himself with an ardour and laboriousness which filled his friends with anxiety lest the toils to which he exposed himself should operate injuriously on his already fragile frame. The public have yet to learn how much they are indebted to him for the valuable collection of objects and implements of industry which has been brought together as the nucleus of the museum of which he had the care; but how much of his life was expended in accomplishing that end, none but those constantly with him can ever know.

In the Chair of Technology a new and congenial field was opened for him, in which, from the extensive range of his scientific attainments and sympathies, as well as his matured experience as a lecturer, the most auspicious expectations were entertained as to his success. These hopes were just beginning to be largely realised when they were destined to be smitten for ever. Dr Wilson had for many years laboured under a tendency to pulmonary complaint, and though it was marvellous how little his physical weakness was allowed by him to interfere with his mental activity or professional labours, the very efforts he put forth were only strengthening the hold upon him of that insidious disease. At the commencement of this session he appeared to be as he had been for years before, and he entered upon his duties with his usual vivacity and energy, and with the largest class he had as yet enrolled. But he had barely entered upon them when he was summoned from them, and all sublunary pursuits, by that dread call which none can resist. He continued lecturing up to Friday the 18th of November last, and on Tuesday the 22d he died.

The call was sudden, but it was one for which he was fully prepared. He had long contemplated death as a change which he might be called upon without much previous warning to undergo; and so little hold had mere life on his desires, that the expression he once used to a friend was, "I am quite resigned to live." To another friend he said six months ago, when there seemed no immediate prospect of death, "I am trying to live every day, so that I may be ready to go on an hour's notice." Nor was it merely by such expressions as these that he made it evident how much he was unconsciously realising his proximity to the eternal world; those who were around him in the domestic circle, and whose eyes affection had sharpened to note every varying phase of his inner life, were struck with the growing indications which daily met their notice of advancing ripeness and mellowness in his spiritual development. Earth seemed to be loosening its hold upon him, while heaven was drawing him by its fine and powerful attraction nearer to itself. It was as if a message had come to him from the world of spirits, which he alone had heard, announcing to him that the Lord had need of him in his heavenly temple, and was about ere long to call him up thither. Like the apostle, he had the sentence of death within himself; and having long learned "to trust not in himself, but in God who raiseth up the dead," the bitterness of death was for him already past. No need on his part, therefore, for long and anxious preparation! It was not a distant and perilous journey he was about to make, far less a plunge into a dark and uncertain region; it was only to a higher and grander apartment of that house of the Father, in which he had long dwelt, that he was to be removed. When the summons came, therefore, he calmly and joyfully obeyed it. His last days were days of great bodily prostration, and the nature of his illness rendered it impossible for him to hold much intercourse by speech with those around him. He was able, however, to give constant indication of the entire serenity with which he awaited the will of his heavenly Father, and to express confidently and unhesitatingly the peace with which he rested "in the hands of a good and kind Redeemer." His endeared friend Dr Cairns had arrived just in time to see him ere death had overmastered his powers of utterance, and in answer to his question, "Is all peace?" he replied firmly, and with a sweet smile on his lips, ''Yes." As the evening wore on a touching scene occurred. His venerable mother, whom he loved with all the tenderness of his affectionate heart, knowing that his end was drawing nigh, entered the room, and imposing upon herself a strong constraint, lest she should in any way agitate his departing spirit, took her farewell of him by simply kissing his hand. He recognised the loving touch—what true son does not recognise a mother's kiss?—and unable to speak so as to be heard by her, he raised his hand and pointed upwards, as if to say, "Farewell for the present; we meet again in yonder place, where there is no more death, and where parting is unknown." Having repeatedly expressed a wish, in the course of the evening, to have "the room darkened, and to get to rest," this was at length done, and he was left alone with a beloved sister, his constant and endeared companion for many years. To her, after some words of thanks for some kind office she had done, he said, "I've been an unworthy servant of a worthy and gracious Master." More he tried to say, but only one word could be distinguished—"sin." Was this word part of a confession, or part of a thanksgiving? Perhaps it was both—the utterance of one who in humble penitence acknowledged his transgressions, but who at the same time could thank Him "who pardoneth iniquity" that his transgressions had been covered. As his end drew near, his friends again surrounded his couch. The last sounds that fell upon his ear were those of prayer offered up by Dr Cairns. And so he went away from the prayers of earth to the songs of heaven; and whilst they that had accompanied him to the river's brink knelt in solemn supplication beside his lifeless remains, his happy spirit had passed over to the further side, and the clarion peal from the battlements of heaven had proclaimed that the crown was won, and that another of Adam's race had gotten the victory through the blood of the Lamb!

The tidings of his death caused a profound and wide-spread sensation throughout the city, which found its expression in the extraordinary demonstration that accompanied his funeral. In all the circumstances of it, we may safely say that never before was such a tribute of respect and love offered at the grave of any of our citizens. In the procession which conveyed his remains to the tomb were men of all classes and parties; the magistrates in their robes of office, the professors of the university in their gowns, students of the university, members of the literary and scientific societies of the city, clergymen of different denominations, the members of this congregation, and a large body of citizens representing every class and interest in the community : all met under the shadow of one common grief, and united to pay the last marks of respect to him whose remains were about to be committed to the narrow house. The shops were closed along the line of the procession, and business suspended for a time in other parts of the city; multitudes of both sexes crowded the streets by which the cortége was to pass; and as the hearse moved slowly along, many tears were shed, and the crowd looked on with bated breath, and even the rude and thoughtless uncovered their heads, and offered their silent tribute of homage. It was a scene never to be forgotten by those who witnessed it; and it carried in it a deep moral significancy, and uttered a lesson which it behoves us not to overlook. To what was such a demonstration due? What was there in this man, who was not venerable from age nor illustrious by rank; who was the founder of no school, the leader of no party, the representative of no public interest; who had not distinguished himself by any unparalleled discovery in science, or done anything to put men in possession of new rights, new resources, new enjoyments: what was there in him, and what had he done during his comparatively short life, to evoke so universal and spontaneous an expression of regard and homage from his fellow-citizens? The question is an important one, and I shall endeavour briefly to answer it.

It was not due merely to Professor Wilson's genius and talents. These, indeed, were of a high order, and could not but command respect. In him, great intellectual powers were combined with a rich, poetic imagination, a fine aesthetic sensibility, and a fertility of quaint and quiet humour, which not only widened the range of his mental sympathies greatly beyond the sphere of science, but enabled him to lend to scientific discussion a freshness and grace which made scientific discussion in his hand something altogether peculiar. A combination so rare in itself, and the separate elements of which were so powerfully developed as they were in him, could not but give him a high place in the respect of a community like this, which has always shewn a readiness to appreciate and honour mental superiority. But there must have been something more than this to call forth such a demonstration as that which accompanied his funeral.

Nor will Professor Wilson's reputation as an author suffice to account for this. Something, it must be allowed, is due to this cause; for his writings possess a singular charm, and he cultivated so many different kinds of writing with success, that he found admiring readers among persons of very widely different tastes; but it would be absurd to suppose that mere admiration of writings, many of which were anonymous, would have kindled such feelings towards the author as were so plentifully manifested on the occasion referred to.

Something more must be ascribed to Professor Wilson's popularity as a lecturer. He had so frequently appeared before the public in this capacity, he had addressed himself to so many different classes in the community, and he had invariably so gratified, instructed, and captivated his audience, that there was a very large number of persons who felt themselves lying, as it were, under personal obligations to him, and whose feelings towards him were consequently greatly beyond those which mere admiration of talents or of authorship could inspire. Added to this was the affection which his unfailing gentleness, his brave resolution to work, notwithstanding manifest bodily infirmity and fluctuating health, and his promptitude to meet the wishes of the public, at whatever sacrifice of time, energy, and personal convenience, could not fail to excite. As in private so in public life, there was something about him which inspired love. People came to feel as if they would like to do something kind to him, even when they were not personally acquainted with him. No wonder, then, that a feeling of this sort, which had been gradually accumulating for years in the heart of the community, should have burst forth in such a demonstration as that of which our city was the scene when an opportunity of shewing respect to him, which was felt to be the last, was presented.

But I believe that which chiefly moved the multitude to do homage, was the sense which all had of how true and good a man he was. It was his religion—so simple, so sincere, so unobtrusive, and yet so constantly operative, that stamped upon his character its highest worth; and it was this, I believe, which drew to him the confidence, the respect, and the love of the community, more than anything else. Men felt that in him there stood before them one of the finest combinations of genuine science and genuine Christianity that had ever been presented to their view. For with him religion and science were not two things—they were one; so interwoven with each other, that every contribution which he made to science was also laid as an offering on the altar of religion. He did not, as is too common with men of science, content himself with merely making his obeisance to religion, and then passing by on the other side to prosecute an independent course. Religion went with him all along his path, and it was on her head he sought to place the crown that science had enabled him to win. It was his daily endeavour to make all his work bear on the glory of his God and Saviour—to turn all into a solemn liturgy that should rise up as incense before God. And in this he so succeeded, that his whole soul came to be pervaded with Christian influences; and religious thoughts and feelings flowed unbidden, and with the most perfect naturalness, into all his discourses and writings. I have often felt as if there was something sublime in the sight of this man, with his fragile frame and modest attitude, standing amongst the aristocracy of science, or before some popular assembly, or in the presence of his students, and calmly, unostentatiously, with the simplicity of a child and the unfaltering confidence of a confessor, giving utterance to the sentiments of faith and worship that came, as from his inner soul, spontaneously to his lips. To the influence of such a manifestation, it was not possible that a sound-hearted community like this could be insensible. I believe they were not. I believe it was Professor Wilson's high moral character, and religious earnestness and truthfulness, that more than anything else drew to him the respect and affection of the general public. The homage that followed him to the grave was an expression of the respect and reverence which high moral character and spiritual earnestness, when associated with gentleness, kindness, and genius, never fail to evoke.

Memoir of George Wilson (pdf)

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