Marking the 200th anniversary of the craftsman professor who transformed science teaching

08 November 2022
Professor Patrick Copland
10 November 2022 marks 200 years since the death of Patrick Copland, an inspiring professor who became one of Aberdeen’s most popular teachers and transformed science learning in the city

Patrick Copland was born in 1748 in a small parish to the north-west of Aberdeen and educated locally before being accepted at the age of 14 to study at Marischal College.

After graduating he became a professor of natural philosophy and built a reputation as an educator and scientist in the region and beyond, conversing with some of the best-known names in science.

He promoted the teaching of science by demonstration and opened up scientific education to working adults in Aberdeen.

Teaching by demonstration

Copland taught in a time where the experiments of Newton and others were discussed at universities, but teaching with practical demonstrations was not ubiquitous as it is in schools today. Many universities, including Marischal College, lacked comprehensive collections of demonstration apparatus.

In just a few years he had repaired all of the old machines at Marischal and executed several new ones. Teaching by demonstration soon became Copland’s trademark. One former Marischal College student Edward Ellice, who became Secretary of State for War in the 1830s, described Copland as "The man who more fully opened the eyes of the student to this world than any teacher he had ever met".

Professor Copland's friction wheels

The machines he produced with his assistant John King were said to be indistinguishable from those of the best instrument makers of the time and Marischal’s collection was described as ‘the most complete and extensive’ in the UK.


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In addition to his ‘day job’, Copland was a pioneer of science evening classes for local artisans. The course he ran was so popular that it attracted more than 60 life-long learners to each session and ran for 27 years straight.

Copland also equipped the city’s Castlehill observatory with modern instruments and made it into a semi-public space for learning.

An 'interesting reputation'

Professor Copland's lively teaching style earned him an interesting reputation in the city and beyond. A private letter to another of the Marischal College professors suggests that Copland acquired or cultivated the image of a bit of a magician as it stated: “The thunder and lightning are in general attributed to the Hocus Pocus tricks, which Professor Copland has lately been playing at the observatory and elsewhere.... The mob are greatly incensed against him, the very women would surely attack him in the streets, were it not for a small vial of Electrical matter, which he is said to carry about in his Breeches pocket”.

Copland also advised the town on obtaining improved fresh water supplies; gave advice on standards of length, weight, and volume measure; made the earliest measurements of the height of the Deeside hills by barometric means and is credited with introducing the process of bleaching by chlorine to the UK.

Anniversary event

The University of Aberdeen is running a bookable talk on Copland’s life from 12.30-1pm on Thursday November 10 at the University of Aberdeen’s Science Teaching Hub on the corner of Bedford Road and St Machar Drive.

This will be followed by a drop-in demonstration of some examples of Copland’s equipment by Museum & Special Collections staff from 1pm to 4pm.

For full details visit the University of Aberdeen website.

Report and images courtesy University of Aberdeen.