Professors of Natural Philosophy at the Universities of Aberdeen *

Charles Niven  DSc FRS   23rd Oct 1845 - 11th May 1923

Charles Niven came from a talented Peterhead family with 5 brothers who all graduated with honours from King's College or the University of Aberdeen having studied under David Thomson, among other professors. Charles followed Thomson's example of going to Trinity College, Cambridge, for his BA. Charles was a better scholar than his mentor, graduating as Senior Wrangler in 1867. He accepted a Fellowship at Trinity College but was fortunate in an era when academic posts did not appear too often to be appointed Professor of Mathematics at Queens College Cork in the same year. At Cork he had the time to pursue research in mathematical physics in addition to his teaching duties. His papers were sufficiently well received that he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1880. He was also appointed in the same year to fill the vacancy left by David Thomson as Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen. [As an aside, Charles Niven followed closely in the footsteps of elder brother William Niven who also graduated with a 1st class Hons MA at Aberdeen, went to Trinity College, was 3rd Wrangler, elected a Fellow of Trinity College and later FRS. William Niven edited the famous 2-volume complete works of James Clerk Maxwell].

Charles Niven was a conscientious teacher who had his work cut out keeping both third and fourth year natural philosophy courses going with the help of at most one assistant until 1904. He oversaw the introduction of the BSc and PhD degrees, the introduction of women students, the teaching of Medical Physics, the move of the entire 'department' with its very substantial amount of apparatus from King's College back to larger premises in Marischal College and the introduction of natural philosophy teaching to the earlier years. Such was the pressure of teaching commitments that he had little time to advance the skills in mathematical physics that had earned him his FRS. He never had any supporting Natural Philosophy Lecturers and it was only from 1904 that he had two 'Assistants'. The 1909-10 University Calendar lists the five Natural Philosophy courses then given: The Ordinary graduation class; the Advanced graduation class ; the Honours class; the Physics class (a 'half course' aimed at medical students but available in Arts); Practical Physics (6 hours a week in terms 1 & 2, 9 hours in term 3). The Assistants were on yearly contracts, renewed by the Court at the recommendation of the Professor.

Niven was described as a small, quiet man with a twinkle in his eye and not an enemy in the world. In an era when staff were almost always referred to by their surnames, he was known by the students as 'Charlie'. The student magazine Alma Mater commented that Niven 'is a man any University might be proud to have in its Professorial roll'. His father-in-law was Sir David Stewart, Lord Provost of Aberdeen for six years and owner of one of Aberdeen's largest businesses. Some further details on Niven and his substantial memorial in Banchory-Devenick is given in a separate web-page.

Charles Niven

Charles Niven in front of a spark coil and Leyden jars likely used for early radio, from an oil painting on loan to the University of Aberdeen


Page by

John S. Reid

Dec. 2017