John Adamson (physician)

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John Adamson
Dr. John Adamson.jpg
Adamson circa 1865
Born 1809
St Andrews, Scotland
Died 1870
  • Physician
  • Photographer
  • Physicist
  • Lecturer
  • Museum curator
Known for First calotype portrait in Scotland
Relatives Robert Adamson (brother)

Dr. John Adamson (1809–1870) was a Scottish physician, pioneer photographer, physicist, lecturer and museum curator. He was a highly respected figure in St Andrews, and was responsible for producing the first calotype portrait in Scotland in 1841. He taught the process to his brother, the famous pioneering photographer Robert Adamson. He was curator of the Literary and Philosophical Society Museum at St. Andrews from 1838 until his death.


Adamson was born in St Andrews, and grew up in Burnside, the son of Alexander Adamson, a Fife farmer and his wife, Rachael Melville.[1]

Adamson, circa 1845

Adamson was educated in the University of St Andrews and University of Edinburgh, graduating with a diploma in Surgery in 1829.[2] He moved to Paris, where he opened up a practice and was then employed as a ship's surgeon on a voyage to China.[2] He returned to St Andrews in 1835, where he set up practice permanently. Adamson became heavily involved with Brewster at the university, studying the calotype and also became a lecturer and curator of the university museum.[1] The older brother of pioneering photographer Robert Adamson, it was John who produced the first calotype portrait in Scotland at the Royal Museum in Edinburgh in May 1841 (various sources also say May 1840 or May 1842[3][4]), with his close associate, physicist David Brewster of the University of St Andrews.[1] Adamson "discovered how to control a process that remained remarkably difficult."[4] John was also responsible for educating Robert in the process which he later used to produce some 2500 calotypes with David Octavius Hill between 1843 and 1848.[5][6][7] Through Brewster, Adamson was in close contact with Henry Fox Talbot who invented the process.[8] He obtained a Master's Degree in 1843.[2] He was also a member and the curator of the St Andrews Literary and Philosophical Society museum from 1838 until his death.[2][3]

John Adamson's home and family in St Andrews, 1862

There is a blue plaque in his honour on his home at 127 South Street in St Andrews, where he lived from 1848 to 1865. It says "He was a physician and pioneer photographer. In 1841 he took the first caloptype portrait. He also taught his brother Robert and Thomas Rodger the technique and art of photography. A town councillor, he was a tireless worker for public health, and the hospital here is, in part, his memorial."[9][10] His home became the main post office of St Andrews from 1907, but in 2012 it was converted into a restaurant, named The Adamson.[11]


  1. ^ a b c Hill, David Octavius; Adamson, Robert; Ovenden, Graham (1973). Hill & Adamson photographs. Academy Editions. p. 6. Retrieved 17 July 2012. 
  2. ^ a b c d "Dr John Adamson M.D. of St Andrews.". University of St Andrews. Retrieved 18 July 2012. 
  3. ^ a b "Adamson, John (1809–1870)". National Library of Scotland. Retrieved 18 July 2012. 
  4. ^ a b Stevenson, Sara (1 January 2003). Facing the light: the photography of Hill & Adamson. Scottish National Portrait Gallery. p. 15. ISBN 978-1-903278-32-1. Retrieved 18 July 2012. 
  5. ^ Lawson, Julie; McKenzie, Ray; Morrison-Low, A. D. (June 1994). Photography 1900: the Edinburgh symposium : the proceedings of the Conference of the European Society for the History of Photography in association with the Scottish Society for the History of Photography : Edinburgh, 24–26 September 1992. Scottish Society for the History of Photography, National Museums of Scotland. p. 19. Retrieved 18 July 2012. 
  6. ^ Hannavy, John (4 March 2008). Fox Talbot: An Illustrated Life of Willian Henry Fox Talbot, 'Father of Modern Photography', 1800 -1877. Osprey Publishing. p. 28. ISBN 978-0-7478-0351-5. Retrieved 18 July 2012. 
  7. ^ Hutchinson Encyclopedia 8th Edition (1988), p.10
  8. ^ National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland (1988). ROSC. John Donald Publishers, and National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland. p. 65. Retrieved 18 July 2012. 
  9. ^ Blue Plaque for John Adamson
  10. ^ Plaque #11051 on Open Plaques.
  11. ^ "Story". The Adamson. Retrieved 18 July 2012.