Lyon Playfair

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(b. Chunar, India, 21 May 1818; d. London, England, 29 May 1898), chemistry.

The son of a medical officer in the East India Company, Playfair was brought up by relatives in Scotland. In 1835 he became a medical student at the Andersonian Institution, Glasgow, where Thomas Graham awakened his interest in chemistry. Playfair finished his medical studies at Edinburgh but had to give up a medical career because of eczema. A mercantile career in India was also abandoned after a brief trial, and he returned to London to become Graham’s assistant.

Playfair spent 1839–1841 in Liebig’s laboratory at Giessen, where he did outstanding work on myristic acid and caryophyllene; he increased his reputation by translating Liebig’s Die organische Chemie in ihre Anwendung auf Agricultur und Physiologie into English. After leaving Germany, Playfair became chemical manager at the Primrose Mill, near Clitheroe, Lancashire; but, sensing a decline in trade, he left in the autumn of 1842 to become professor of chemistry at the Royal Institution, Manchester. During his three years there, Playfair collaborated with Joule on laborious but ultimately fruitless work on the atomic volumes of substances in solution; he also worked with Bunsen on the analysis of blast-furnace gases.

In 1842 Playfair’s application for a chair in chemistry at Toronto had elicited the unprecedented intervention of the prime minister (Sir Robert Peel), who offered Playfair an important post if he would stay in Britain. This offer could not be implemented until 1845, when he became chemist to the Geological Survey and professor of chemistry at the new School of Mines. Meanwhile, however, he was much in governmental favor, and served on important Royal Commissions on the Health of Towns and on the Irish Potato Famine. In 1848 Playfair was elected a fellow of the Royal Society and was subsequently Prince Albert’s chief adviser on the Great Exhibition of 1851. While holding the post of inspector of schools of science in London (1850–1858) he made his most important discovery, the nitroprussides.

In 1858 Playfair accepted the chair of chemistry at Edinburgh with high hopes, although in his eleven years there he achieved little. In 1868, as a Liberal party candidate, he was elected member of Parliament for the universities of Edinburgh and St. Andrews, and the rest of his life was spent in politics. He was active in the cause of universal compulsory education (1870) and took a prominent part in the reform of the Civil Service; he was briefly postmaster general (1873–1874) under Gladstone and deputy speaker of the House of Commons (1880–1883). He was knighted on retirement from this office, and in 1892 he was raised to the peerage as Baron Playfair of St. Andrews.

Short in stature and with more than his share of Victorian pomposity and wordiness, Playfair openly sought the company of the exalted and successful, and was consequently disliked by many. He played an important role, however, as one of the first government scientists in Britain.


I. Original Works. Apart from the usual scientific papers, of which the two most important are “Report on the Gases Evolved from Iron Furnaces,” in British Association Report for 1845, 142–186, written with R. W. Bunsen, and “On the Nitroprussides, a New Class of Salts,” in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 139 (1849), 477–578, Playfair’s publications are mainly in the form of government reports, of which Report on the State of Large Towns in Lancashire (London, 1845) is the most important.

II. Secondary Literature. Shortly after Playfair’s death, Wemyss Reid published Memoirs and Correspondence of Lyon Playfair (London, 1899), consisting largely of extracts from his journal and letters. There is a chapter on Playfair in J. G. Crowther, Statesmen of Science (London, 1965), 105–174. There is a notice on him in supp. III of Dictionary of National Biography (1900), 1142–1144. His obituary notices were very numerous, and only that by H. E. Roscoe need be mentioned: Nature, 58 (1898), 128–129. See also R. G. W. Norrish, in Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, 99 (1951), 537–548.

W. V. Farrar

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Playfair, Lyon (1818–98). Playfair was a chemist and statesman, and one of the organizers of the Great Exhibition of 1851. Educated at Edinburgh and then at Giessen, where Justus Liebig had built up a great research school, Playfair worked in textiles in Manchester, and met John Dalton. In 1845 he moved to London, to the School of Mines, an ancestor of Imperial College; he realized that although the Crystal Palace seemed to show Britain as the workshop of the world, in fact other countries were overtaking her. In lectures, and from 1868 as a Liberal MP and minister, and after 1892 as Baron Playfair, he promoted awareness of the importance of science for the prosperity of the country. He became a great spokesman for technical and scientific education; with his wide circle of friends in high places, including Prince Albert, he has been compared to Joseph Banks as an influential figure.

David Knight