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23 Jan 2024
updated 23 Jan 2024

Alexander Crum Brown
(26 Mar 1838 – 28 Oct 1922)


We've encountered a good many interesting people, or clever ones, or unusual ones, in our circular tour of the family connections – and by profession quite a few military men, clergymen or engineers – but only two scientists: Tom Cottrell and Crum Brown, both of whom effortlessly managed to be interesting, unusual and exceedingly clever.

I don't suppose you could find more than one person in many hundred who has ever even heard of Crum Brown, and then only as the originator of a rather technical rule regarding the influence of an existing substituent in a benzene ring upon the position likely to be occupied by a second substitution into that ring. But there was much, much more to him than that. For one thing he had fluent Japanese, and for another he was an expert on knitting.

His descents on both sides are most interesting. He united two theological lineages into a truly sagacious intellect, and then died without issue. God moves in mysterious ways, as may all too often be observed.

On his father's side he was descended from John Brown of Haddington and on his mother's side from Ebenezer Erskine, as detailed in the tabulations below. The name John Brown is a recurrent one in Scottish Covenanting / Presbyterian history:


All the John Browns

Besides well known John Browns such as the Abolitionist (American, 1800-1859), and the Spy (British, d 1964), there are many other John Browns known particularly to students of Reformed Church history. In fact, it is a challenge to remember who is who, but each is worthy of individual recognition in the history of the church. The following are some notable John Browns on this list to help them straight in our collective memory:

John Brown of Wamphray1,  2,  Portrait (1610-1679) Covenanter pastor and theologian.

John Brown of Priesthill1,  2,  3 (1627-1685) Covenanter martyr.

John Brown of Haddington1,  2,  Portrait (1722-1787) Presbyterian pastor, theologian (studied as pupil of Ebenezer Erskine) and biblical commentator.

John Brown of Whitburn (1754-1832) Secession minister and son of John Brown of Haddington.

John Brown of Edinburgh1,  2,  Portrait (1784-1858) Presbyterian Minister and biblical commentator, son of John Brown of Whitburn and grandson of John Brown of Haddington.

John Brown the Physician1,  Portrait (1810-1882) Doctor and essayist, son of John Brown of Edinburgh, grandson of John Brown of Whitburn and great-grandson of John Brown of Haddington. Half-brother of Alexander Crum Brown.

John Brown of Bedford (English, 1830-1922) Biographer of John Bunyan.

but as far as I can tell, there were no familial connections between John Brown of Wamphray, the martyred John Brown of Priesthill, and John Brown of Haddington with whom the first table begins.

#IndividualSpouse / PartnerFamily
1Rev John Brown
(1722 – 19 Jun 1787)
of Abernethy (birth)
Haddington (death)

author of The Self Interpreting Bible
Janet Thomson (1732/33 – 1771)
(m 1753)
John Brown
(1754 – 1832)

Ebenezer Brown
Violet Croumbie
(m 1773)
William Brown

secretary of Scottish Missionary Society,
biographer of his father
2Rev John Brown
(24 Jul 1754 – 1832)
of Whitburn
Isabella Cranston John Brown
(12 Jul 1784 – 13 Oct 1858
3Rev John Brown DD
(12 Jul 1784 – 13 Oct 1858)
of Broughton Place, Edinburgh
  John Brown MD
(22 Sep 1810 – 11 May 1882)
Margaret Fisher Crum
(1799 – 1841)
(m 1835)
Alexander Crum Brown
(26 Mar 1838 – 28 Oct 1922)
4Prof Alexander Crum Brown MD DSc FRSE FRS
(26 Mar 1838 – 28 Oct 1922)

Jane Bailie Porter
(d 1910)
(m 1866)

daughter of Rev James Porter of Drumlee, Co Down.

And on his mother's side (her brother was the chemist Walter Crum FRS) the descent is from Jean Turpie Erskine, Ebenezer's eldest daughter (his unmarried only son seems to have been a bit of a cipher).


The Erskine Halcro Genealogy, Ebenezer Erskine Scott
Geo P Johnston, Edinburgh 1895
(Click image to enlarge)

There are innumerable other biographies of Crum Brown. You do the googling! But this seems a pretty good one, probably reproduced from elsewhere.


Alexander Crum Brown, (1838–1922), chemist, was born in Edinburgh on 26 March 1838, the only son of a United Presbyterian minister, John Brown (1784–1858), and his second wife, Margaret Fisher Crum (d. 1841), sister of the chemist Walter Crum FRS (1796–1867) and a descendant of Ebenezer Erskine. His half-brother, John Brown MD (1810–1882), was famed as an author; their grandfather was John Brown of Whitburn (1754–1832), and their great-grandfather was John Brown of Haddington. Crum Brown, as he was generally known, spent five years at the Royal High School, Edinburgh, then went to Mill Hill School, Middlesex. He entered the University of Edinburgh in 1854 to study arts, but changed to medicine, and was a gold medallist in chemistry and natural philosophy. He graduated MA in 1858 and MD in 1861. He simultaneously studied science at London University where he gained his DSc in 1862. In the following year he went to Germany to study chemistry, under Bunsen at Heidelberg and Kolbe at Marburg. He returned to Edinburgh to teach medical students, as extramural lecturer in chemistry in 1863 and professor from 1869 to his retirement in 1908. He obtained his FRCP (Edinburgh) in 1865. In 1866 he married Jane Bailie (d. 1910), daughter of the Revd James Porter of Drumlee, co. Down. There were no children.

In keeping with his medico-chemical interests, Crum Brown's Edinburgh MD thesis, 'On the theory of chemical combination' (1861), proposed a new way to represent chemical constitution: each atom was to be indicated by the chemical symbol for the element concerned, bonds between atoms being symbolized by lines. Essentially this was the system of notation later employed universally. For clarifying atomic relationships within a molecule, according to the new valency theories of Edward Frankland and Kekulé, this simple device was of untold value and greatly facilitated the emergence of the theory of structure upon which later chemistry was predicated. It transformed the teaching of organic chemistry, particularly in the hands of Frankland, becoming known, somewhat unfairly, as 'Frankland's notation'. The system was introduced to a wider audience at a lecture on chemical constitution and its relation to physiological action, reported in Chemical News complete with the new 'graphic formulae'. His name is remembered now chiefly for the Crum Brown – Gibson rule, enunciated with his assistant J. Gibson (1855–1914) in 1892, concerning substitution in a benzene molecule.

Though his most enduring concern was the establishment of a truly mathematical theory of chemistry (in which he was unsuccessful) Crum Brown also worked on optical activity, organo-sulphur compounds, and electrolytic synthesis of half-esters. He wrote on the physiology of the inner ear, where he correctly related vertigo to the motion of fluid in channels of the inner ear. He was proficient in Japanese, and an expert in systems of knitting. His other interests included the university senate, the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and the synod of his church. He was the first holder of a London DSc (1862), received honorary degrees from all four Scottish universities, and became FRSE in 1863 and FRS in 1879. He was president of the Chemical Society from 1891 to 1893. Crum Brown died on 28 October 1922 at his home, 8 Belgrave Crescent, Edinburgh.

Crum Brown the man

The following extract gives a vivid picture of a lovable, vulnerable individual totally committed to his subject matter but less successful as a communicator.


As a teacher, to the average elementary student his lectures were rather a trial. A former pupil of his wrote:

"Briskly entering the class-room, he began at once in rapid phrasing to describe the properties of a chemical substance or the intricacies of a chemical process. Chemical formulae grew like magic on the black-board. The casual and limp-minded listener found Crum Brown's quick vivid style much too strenuous; but the student who really wished to learn, and had ear and eye in well-trained attention, could not fail to experience keen intellectual delight from the masterly manner in which the whole subject was presented".

One point of interest about the content of his lectures is that the then new physico-chemical theories of osmotic pressure and of electrolytic dissociation aroused his interest and, becoming gradually convinced of their validity, he did much to place them clearly before his students. However Crum Brown's lecturing style was not conducive to maintaining order in a large class and a Senatus Minute of 1871 refers to "Disturbance in Chemistry Classroom"; the culprit "was fined one guinea; and (without being put formally on his probation) he was warned that any repetition of the same conduct would be more severely punished".

David Rorie wrote of the chemistry class:

"But Crum Brown's was the noisiest in medicine and was often the scene of back-bench hooliganism. His high pitched voice, his mannerisms, his frequent and stereo-typed appeals to the non-existent better nature of his interrupters, and the very kindness of his heart, all made for lack of order".

Crum Brown was kindly, generous and modest, and these qualities came through to the students so that affection for "Crummie" is a recurring theme in student reminiscences. John Flett wrote:

"Crum Brown was a charming man and a very bad teacher. Most of his students very soon gave up all attempt to follow him and the class was exceedingly rowdy. Some days the noise and interruptions were so great that the poor professor had to give up and flee. Then in a few minutes he would return with tears streaming down his cheeks and apologise for his inability to control his class. We all loved him".

Francis Bell wrote that Crum Brown's intellectual reputation

"gave him an aura set off by his personality; his venerable stooped figure and the contrast provided by his white beard and hair, and skull cap and the sparkling vitality of his black eyes. In spite of all this a rowdy, genial disorder prevailed and when the row became intolerable, he would depart to his retiring room. A fervent chorus of "Will ye no' come back again" followed and after a suitable interval, back he came. I think he really enjoyed our bizarre show of affection and teasing. The story of his fall entering the classroom and his remark on picking himself up "just a brown precipitate, gentlemen" I cannot vouch for".

And the visionary

In the opening paragraph of his MD thesis On the Theory of Chemical Combination (University of Edinburgh,1861), Crum Brown identified the two most mystifying unknowns of chemistry up to that time:

"The fundamental questions in chemistry – those questions the answers to which would convert chemistry into a branch of exact science, and enable us to predict with absolute certainty the result of every reaction – are (1) What is the nature of the forces which retain the several molecules or atoms of a compound together? and (2) How may their direction and amount be determined? We may safely say that, in the present state of the science, these questions cannot be answered; and it is extremely doubtful whether any future advances will render their solution possible."

And on p12 of the thesis he depicts, for the first time, symbolic diagrams for the molecules of ammonia (NH3) and ethanol (C2H5OH) using valency lines connecting the constituent atoms in a manner indistinguishable from modern textbook practice. The number of such lines of force, as he called them, emanating from a given atom was established empirically as the ratio of its atomic weight to its equivalent weight. But he realised that this was simply a token of something much deeper, as Kepler's empirical laws had pointed the way to Newton's law of gravitation.

Indeed, in a letter of 5 Mar 1886, Crum Brown wrote that chemistry was not yet so far advanced as to have a Newton:

"what we are waiting for is a man who will show how the Laws of Motion can be applied to Chemistry, for Chemistry is only an independent Science because we do not yet see its full relation to the general Science of Dynamics. Our present work is to prepare the way for such a man".

But in fact such a chemical Newton did already exist: Josiah Willard Gibbs (11 Feb 1839 – 28 Apr 1903) had developed in 1876-78 the theory of chemical potential – establishing both energy and entropy as being the co-adjudicators of the direction of chemical change and the point of equilibrium – analogous to the (for example) gravitational or electrostatic potentials in mechanics – but was content to publish his work in journals of the utmost obscurity, in striking analogy to Gregor Johann Mendel (20 Jul 1822 – 6 Jan 1884), whom one might describe as the discoverer of the biological potential otherwise known as the gene.

And as regards "the nature of the forces which retain the several molecules or atoms of a compound together", the man who promulgated the notion of electron exchange between atoms or molecules as providing the stabilising influence responsible for chemical bonds and intermolecular forces, Linus Carl Pauling (28 Feb 1901 – 19 Aug 1994), an American as was Gibbs, was to champion the application of quantum mechanics to explain and quantify the fundamental origin of chemical attraction. He might be described as the James Clerk Maxwell of chemistry.

We must also make a respectful bow to a third American, Gilbert Newton Lewis (23 Oct 1875 – 23 Mar 1946) – nominated 35 times for the Nobel Prize in chemistry but consistently blocked by a hostile member of the Nobel Committee – for his 1916 notion of the covalent bond as a mutual sharing of an electron pair between the participating atoms. This transformed Crum Brown's pre-electronic notation of interatomic lines of force into a vivid – but still mostly qualitative – physical picture that explained the simple numerical valencies already established by experimentalists, and provided the template for the first quantum calculation (for H2) in 1928. These analogies are getting stretched but perhaps he was the Robert Hooke of chemistry!

My apologies to everybody who feels that this is all absurdly generalised and over-simplified. Or incomprehensible.



The Self-Interpreting Bible, in this edition of 1831, is one of the best King James Version Bibles ever produced. This edition follows the format of the first edition of 1778 which is simply the best format, as I will explain.

It has the most beautiful brown Spanish marbled end papers. It has date in history marked at top of each page. It has full cross references on the outside margins where they should be easy to check if desired. It has a full complete outline of each chapter of the Bible at the beginning of the chapter, so that after reading the outline the reader is better prepared to enjoy the Word of God that follows.

It has an extensive reflection of each chapter written by John Brown after every chapter to more fully illuminate and give wisdom of God's Word. These reflections are a great treasure in themselves as John Brown was such a giant in the Christian faith and in his knowledge of God's Word. As well, this Bible contains a wealth of notes, commentary and amplifications throughout, but especially in the New Testament, written by John Brown.

Reading and studying this Bible will greatly increase your love for the Messiah and for the Word of God. I have found this to be true in my life and in other people who have this Bible and study it. It is a treasure worth more than its weight in gold. The Self-Interpreting Bible has also been an amazing blessing to me personally in my life and so I highly recommend this Bible to all.

The self-interpreting bible was published ... by over thirty different publishers in England and America from first edition in Scotland in 1778 to about 1929. My favorite editions would be the first edition of 1778, the third edition first published by subscription in America in 1792, with George Washington's name first on the list of purchasers. The large folio edition of 1824 and the edition of 1873, Potter's magnificent Family Bible, which to my knowledge was the most comprehensive and majestic (gold embossed cover) Bible ever produced. The four volume set published from 1896 to 1929 is basically the 1873 edition split into 4 volumes with 400 photographs taken of the Holy Land.

This review written by Alan Doucette, Bible historian, and retouched by REW.


Crum Family of Thornliebank

Robert Osburn founded the first printfield in 1778 in Thornliebank; when he became bankrupt, John Crum of Glasgow bought the printing business for his sons Alexander and James.

The Crum brothers expanded their business until it eventually employed over 1,500 people. Alexander died in 1808 leaving 4 boys (John, Walter, Humphrey and James) and a daughter, Margaret.

By 1819 Walter was in sole charge of the Thornliebank Prin5pcrks, which he built up into a thriving enterprise.

Walter Crum (1796-1867) was a distinguished chemist and used his knowledge in the calico printing process. At 17 he left Glasgow University and studied in Syria, Turkey, France and Germany. He was the father-in-law of William Thomson, Lord Kelvin §§. At Thornliebank, Walter spared no expense to have the best machinery and to turn out the best work. It was said that in Thornliebank, "here were produced the finest textiles in all Europe". As a successful businessman, Walter Crum, F.R.S., bought Rouken Glen estate and mansion house. During his lifetime it is known that the Royal Family visited Thornliebank. When Walter died in 1867, it was said of him that he was "a remarkable man of unbending rectitude and love of truth, with a decision of character, public spirit and perseverance in whatever he undertook".

Walter's son, Alexander, continued management in the same style as his father, expanding and improving. He had many houses built in the village as well as the village hall, public baths, park and library. He was also involved in the building of Thornliebank School in 1875. In 1886 Alexander and his brother William converted the old business into a private, limited concern "The Thornliebank Company Ltd". In 1882 he secured the rights to various lochs on Mearns Moor and in 1887 had the Pilmuir reservoir built. Alexander was M.P. for Renfrewshire from 1880 to 1885. He died suddenly on August 19, 1893 at Thornliebank Station. The Prin5pcrks declined after this, eventually closing in 1929.

In 1896 the Crum Memorial Library in Thornliebank was opened as a memorial to Alexander Crum.

§§ William Thomson, Lord Kelvin

Probably the single most precocious and prestigious physicist worldwide in the entire 19th century. You do the googling!