John Anderson: Professor, Philosopher, and Military Man

As the end of my scholarship draws closer, I intend to bring my project closer to home by delving into eighteenth-century professorial registers from the University of Glasgow. More specifically, I have examined the borrowing records for John Anderson (1726-1796), a Professor at the University of Glasgow between 1754 and 1796. As these records have already been transcribed from the original ledgers into the Books and Borrowing system by Kit Baston, I have used an existing spreadsheet which details the specific books borrowed, book authors, the editions of the books, the borrowed dates and returned dates, as well as possible shelf marks. The use of John Anderson as a case study will make my project more well-rounded as well as allowing me to explore a different avenue in my research; that being professorial borrowings which can then be compared to the student and gentry borrowings I have already analysed. (The student borrowing records for the University of Glasgow for March 1757 and January 1771 are already publicly available here.)

Born in Rosneath in Dunbartonshire, John Anderson graduated from the University of Glasgow with an MA in 1745. After travelling to the Netherlands and working in London as a private tutor, he returned to the university and was appointed Professor of Oriental Languages in 1754. Three years later he was transferred to the Chair of Natural Philosophy, which he held from 1757 until 1796, whist also acting as the Clerk of the University between 1768 and 1769. Known by his students as ‘Jolly Jack Phosphorus’, Anderson’s spirited and overzealous personality resulted in him quarrelling with other staff members. However, his unorthodox teaching methods and ‘Experimental Philosophy’ evening class, a course advertised in newspapers and available to the lower classes, proved popular. Thus, Anderson provides an interesting case study as a character with a great interest in revolutionary principles, explicitly giving the lower classes more education opportunities and in turn, more power. His activist and revolutionary tendencies are also embodied in his involvement in the Jacobite rising in the 1740s. Therefore, Anderson’s book borrowings from 1756 to 1789 are of significant interest to my project as they are representative of a character who was invested in the revolution in France and likely followed its progress carefully.

Portrait of John Anderson
Professor John Anderson, 1726 – 1796. Professor of Oriental Languages and Professor of Natural Philosophy, Glasgow University and founder of Anderson’s Institution, by an unknown artist, c. 1775

As a natural philosopher and professor in Hebrew and Semitic Languages, many of Anderson’s more than 200 borrowings revolve around these subjects, including A Hebrew Grammar, Knolles Generall historie of the Turks (1638) and Harry Spens’ English translation of the Republic of Plato; in ten books (1763). He also borrows Plato’s Opera omina quae exstant (1590) in the original Greek language as well as the Latin translation. This could suggest that he was comparing the three texts, having borrowed the two volumes on the same day. Anderson, not surprisingly, took interest in Pliny the Elder, a commander of armies and navies as well as Roman author and fellow natural philosopher, borrowing volumes three, four and five of Historia Naturalis between 1759 and 1760. Anderson also took up French classical scholar Jean Hardouin’s modern studies of Pliny’s work volumes one and two. This not only emphasises his interest in strong classical military leaders, but also shows his engagement with classical texts through modern scholarly discourses, particularly works by European authors thus inserting himself into discussions happening across the Channel.

Nevertheless, as a figure of the enlightenment, Anderson’s interests were typically diverse and wide reaching. This is evident within both his book borrowings and his own publications. His work The Institutes of Physics (1777) ran to five editions over ten years and aimed to assist his students with their studies. His borrowings in the years leading up to 1777 foreshadowed this publication as he took a keen interest in hydraulics and astronomy, shown by Stevin’s Les oeuvres mathématiques (1634), Astronomy (1742-1764) by Roger Long, and Lalande’s Astronomie (1764) in two volumes which he borrowed ten times between 1766 and 1773. Anderson’s experimental lecturing and inventiveness was epitomised in his installation of Glasgow’s first lighting conductor on the College steeple. This along with the borrowing of periodicals such as the Histoire de l’Académie royale des sciences, suggests that Anderson actively sought to engage in European academic conversations, science being a particularly Eurocentric concern, operating across national borders.

His borrowings of large classical texts such as Pope’s translation of the Odyssey (1725-1726), were likely a result of a heavily classical eighteenth-century syllabus. However, after Anderson’s death, Observations upon Roman Antiquities, Discovered between the Forth and Clyde (1800) was published detailing his own knowledge and writings as an antiquarian and classical collector. The borrowings of Gori’s Museum Florentinum (1732) volume four and Romanum Museum by La Chausse (1746) between 1775 and 1778 represent two of many works which likely aided him in his appreciation of antiquity. However, it could also be argued another reason that Anderson took a particular interest in the classical period because of its connotation with strong military generals and powerful leaders. One example can be taken from his borrowing of Architecture generale redvite en abregé par Mr. Perrault (1681) which outlines the principles of architecture as declared by Vitruvius, a specialised artilleryman praised for his military engineering. His interest in military forces stretched to Sweden with the History of the life of Gustavus Adolphus, king of Sweden, sirnamed the Great, which he borrowed on  27 March 1788. Anderson’s curiosity regarding military history culminated with his publication of Essays on Field Artillery (1788) which was reprinted in French in 1791, the same year in which he presented the French nation with a cannon he had designed. The borrowing register also highlights one of Anderson’s last borrowings as Dulac’s Theorie nouvelle sur le mecanisme de l’artillerie (1741) on  9 June 1789 which similarly covers new theories of artillery mechanisms. Anderson clearly still took an interest in military equipment and warfare after his publications on the subject. Although his borrowing records at the University of Glasgow library terminate at this point on this ledger, we can assume Anderson continued to take a keen interest in the technological advances of battery and cannonry as the French Revolution became inevitably more brutal.

John Anderson's borrowings from the University of Glasgow Library, 1784-1789 (University of Glasgow, Archives and Special Collections, MS 5, 6r)
John Anderson’s borrowings from the University of Glasgow Library, 1784-1789 (University of Glasgow, Archives and Special Collections, MS 5, 6r)

Anderson’s disagreements with the university’s faculty led him into legal disputes and isolation from his colleagues. He consequently went on to bequeath funds to found an institution in his own name, Anderson’s University, which, as described in his will and implemented by his executors in 1796, was open to women and the working class. However, it was strictly off-limits to anyone associated with the University of Glasgow. This dedication to making knowledge available to everyone including the lower classes (but excluding his personal enemies), again represents Anderson’s sympathies with the revolution in France, embodied in the slogan ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’. In 1887, Anderson’s Institution’s medical college, founded in 1800, went onto evolve into a separate and prestigious institution and was thereafter named Anderson’s College Medical School. This was later renamed The Anderson College of Medicine and in 1946 the College was absorbed by Strathclyde University. Thus, Anderson is seen as one of the ancestors and founders of the University of Strathclyde, leaving a tremendous legacy behind him.

Professor of John Anderson
Professor John Anderson, 1726 – 1796, by an unknown artist (after 1760)

Anderson’s last recorded book borrowing encapsulates him as a reader, Roger Bacon’s Opus Majus (1733; originally completed in 1267) being an eclectic 878-page treatise covering all aspects of natural science including physics and mathematics, as well as grammar, logic, philosophy, and Biblical languages. Anderson clearly read widely, with an emphasis on experimental sciences and philosophy. It is important to note however that these borrowing records show only a fraction of his reading. It is more than likely he kept a private collection for his own use and had access to other personal, institution and commercial libraries in the city.

The inclusion of Professor John Anderson in my final Vacation Scholarship Project Summary will allow me to broaden my analysis of how the French Revolution was received in Scotland and thus how it ultimately changed or challenged the reading practices of St Andrews University students and the wider Scottish gentry. It is evident through both his biography and reading habits that John Anderson was a large personality, albeit a personality who was often either admired or despised. Either way, Anderson’s impact on Scottish universities, from their physical establishment to their teaching practises and accessibility to lower classes, cannot be denied.


The Glasgow Story, Strathclyde University Archives, John Anderson,

University of Glasgow, Georgian Glasgow, John Anderson (1726-1796),

 University of Glasgow, The University of Glasgow Story, John Anderson,