Professors of Natural Philosophy at the Universities of Aberdeen *

William Duncan   28th Jan 1717 - 1st May 1760

William Duncan was an Aberdonian who had graduated AM at Marischal College in 1735. He went to London from where he published a notable work on The Elements of Logic. Unlike the other newly appointed Professors in 1753 who were already Regents, he was a new addition to the staff. He was the first Professor of Natural Philosophy to teach on the new 'Plan of Education in the Marischal College and University' that had been drawn up by Professor Alexander Gerard. This was no simple shuffling of subjects. It was drawn up on the premise that knowledge of the world was not significantly gained by being clever with words, constructing 'phantasies and conceits', propositions and 'artificial syllogisms'. The plan struck a chord with other Universities, notably a number of American Colleges that restructured after the American Revolution.

Gerard's basic premise was that argument should come after facts have been acquired. The new syllabus, in brief, followed these lines: year 1: Greek. Year 2: Greek, Latin, Natural and Civil History along with the elements of geography, chronology and elementary mathematics. Year 3: Natural Philosophy with some further mathematics, and some belles lettres. Year 4: the Natural Philosophy of spirits including states of the human mind, natural theology, moral philosophy containing ethics, jurisprudence and politics; logic and metaphysics. Gerard was not putting in practice just personal opinion, for ideas along these lines were being widely discussed. Conspicuous by their absence in the syllabus are purely religious studies.

William Duncan had acquired a reputation for translating the classics, which he continued after being appointed Professor of Natural Philosophy. He drowned while bathing on 1st May 1760 His death was reported as 'some days ago' in the Caledonian Mercury of 14th May 1760. The date given in the DNB is 1st May, that in 'Fasti Academiae Mariscallanae', 12th May. The Caledonian Mercury said "His reputation, as a man of learning, was so conspicuous to all; his abilities and address, as a teacher, was so well known to his colleagues, and to those who had the happiness to study under him; his virtues in private life, were so many and important, that all hearts will unite in regretting the untimely death of this worthy man in the 44th year of his age, and esteem it a heavy and a public loss."


Page by

John S. Reid

Dec. 2017