As Regius Professor at the University of Edinburgh for fifty years, Jameson is notable for his advanced scholarship in natural history, his superb museum collection, and for his tuition of Charles Darwin. Jameson was not at his best in the lecture theatre however, and, for the first half of his career, he grappled with his predecessor John Walker's perverse "Neptunian" geological theories. Darwin attended Robert Jameson's natural history course at the University of Edinburgh in his teenage years, learning about stratigraphic geology and assisting with the collections of the Museum of Edinburgh University, then one of the largest in Europe. At Jameson's Wernerian Natural History Association, the young Charles Darwin saw John James Audubon give a demonstration of his method of using wires to prop up birds to draw or paint them in natural positions. Robert Jameson was the great-uncle of Sir Leander Starr Jameson, Bt, KCMG, CB, British colonial official and inspiration for the Jameson Raid.
Jameson was born in Leith on 11 July 1774, the son of Thomas Jameson (c.1750–1802), a soap manufacturer, and Catherine Paton (1750–94). His early education was spent at Leith Grammar School, after which he became the apprentice of the Leith surgeon John Cheyne (father of John Cheyne), with the aim of going to sea. He also attended classes at the Edinburgh University (1792–93), studying medicine, botany, chemistry, and natural history.
By 1793, influenced by the Regius Professor of Natural History, John Walker (1731–1803), Jameson abandoned medicine and the idea of being a ship's surgeon, and focused instead on science, particularly geology and mineralogy. It is worth noting that Walker was a presbyterian Minister who had actually combined the Regius Professorship with a period of service as Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1790.
In 1793, Jameson was given the responsibility of looking after the University's Natural History Collection. During this time his geological field-work frequently took him to the Isle of Arran, the Hebrides, Orkney, the Shetland Islands and the Irish mainland. In 1800, he spent a year at the mining academy in Freiberg, Saxony, where he studied under the noted geologist Abraham Gottlob Werner (1749 or 1750–1817).
Regius Professor of Natural History, University of Edinburgh
In 1804, Jameson succeeded Dr Walker as the third Regius Professor of Natural History at Edinburgh University, a post which he held for fifty years. During this period he became the first eminent exponent in Britain of the Wernerian geological system, or Neptunism, and the acknowledged leader of the Scottish Wernerians, founding and presiding over the Wernerian Natural History Society in 1808 until around 1850, when his health began to decline, together with the fortunes of the Society. Jameson's support for Neptunism, a theory that argued that all rocks had been deposited from a primaeval ocean, initially pitted him against James Hutton (1726–1797), a fellow Scot and eminent geologist also based in Edinburgh (but not in the university), who argued for uniformitarianism, a theory that saw the features of the Earth's crust being caused by natural processes over geologic time. Later in life, Jameson renounced Neptunism when he found it untenable and converted to the views of his opponent, Hutton.
As a teacher, Jameson had a mixed reputation for imparting enthusiasm to his students; Thomas Carlyle, who gave serious attention to Natural History, described Jameson's lecturing style as a "blizzard of facts" and Charles Darwin found the lectures boring, saying that they determined him "never to attend to the study of geology" . The detailed syllabus of Jameson's lectures, as drawn up by him in 1826, shows the range of his teaching. The course in zoology began with a consideration of the natural history of human beings, and concluded with lectures on the philosophy of zoology, in which the first subject was Origin of the Species of Animals. (The Scotsman, 29 October 1935: p. 8). Modern scholarship also suggests that, by 1826, Jameson was convinced of Lamarckian concepts of evolution, and that he could express this conviction only in anonymous terms.
Over Jameson's fifty year tenure, he built up a huge collection of mineralogical and geological specimens for the Museum of Edinburgh University, including fossils, birds and insects. By 1852 there were over 74,000 zoological and geological specimens at the museum, and in Britain the natural history collection was second only to that of the British Museum. Shortly after his death, the University Museum was transferred to the British Crown and became part of the Royal Scottish Museum, now the Royal Museum, in Edinburgh's Chambers Street. He was also a prolific author of scientific papers and books, including the Mineralogy of the Scottish Isles (1800), his System of Mineralogy (1808), which ran to three editions, and Manual of Mineralogy (1821). In 1819, with Sir David Brewster (1781–1868), Jameson started the Edinburgh Philosophical Journal and became its sole editor in 1824.
Robert Jameson was the uncle of Robert William Jameson, Writer to the Signet and playwright of Edinburgh, and therefore also the great-uncle of Sir Leander Starr Jameson, Bt, KCMG, British colonial statesman.
- (1798) The Mineralogy of the Shetland Islands and of Arran.
- (1800) Mineralogy of the Scottish Isles.
- (1804) System of Mineralogy.
- (1805) Mineralogical Description of Scotland, vol. i, part I.
- (1809) Elements of Geognosy.
- (1813) Mineralogical Travels through the Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland Islands.
- (1821) Manual of Mineralogy.
- With James Wilson and Hugh Murray, (1830) Narrative of Discovery and Adventure in Africa, from the Earliest Ages to the Present Time: with illustrations of the geology, mineralogy, and zoology. With a map; plans of the routes of Park, and of Denham and Clapperton; several engravings. First published in the Edinburgh Cabinet Library, 1830.
- "Former RSE Fellows 1783–2002" (PDF). Royal Society of Edinburgh. Retrieved 19 September 2010.
- Beolens B, Watkins M, Grayson M. 2011. The Eponym Dictionary of Reptiles. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. xii + 296 pp. ISBN 978-1-4214-0135-5. ("Jameson", p. 133).
- Dictionary of Scientific Biography, volume II, ( New York, Scribner's, 1981)
- Encyclopædia Britannica, vol 12, ( London, William Benton, 1964)
- Birse, Ronald M, Science at the University of Edinburgh 1583–1993, (Edinburgh, University of Edinburgh, 1994)
- Devlin-Thorp, Sheila, Scotland's Cultural Heritage, (Edinburgh, University of Edinburgh, 1981)
- Gillispie, Charles Clouston (ed.), Dictionary of Scientific Biography, vol vii, (New York, Scribner's, 1972)
- Grant, Alexander, The Story of the University of Edinburgh During its First 300 Years, vol.2, (London, Longmans, Green & Co, 1884)
- Seymour Fort, G. (1918) Dr Jameson. London: Hurst and Blackett, Ltd., Paternoster House, E.C. – Biography of Sir Leander Starr Jameson, which notes that Starr's '...chief Gamaliel, however, was a Professor Grant, a man of advanced age, who had been a pupil of his great-uncle, the Professor of Natural History at Edinburgh.' (p. 53).
- Lee, Sidney, ed. (1892). "Jameson, Robert (1774-1854)". Dictionary of National Biography. 29. London: Smith, Elder & Co. p. 234.
- See University of Edinburgh Library Special Collections Division: Robert Jameson's Papers; Sources of Biographical History are derived from the University of Edinburgh webpages .
- "Jameson, Robert". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). 1911.