1st Baron Playfair
Born 1818 Died 1898
Lyon Playfair was born at Chunar, Bengal province, on the 21st of May 1818. He was sent to Europe by his father at an early age, and received his first education at St Andrews. Subsequently he studied medicine at Glasgow and Edinburgh. A short visit to India (in 1837-1838) was followed by his return to Europe to study chemistry, which had always attracted him. This he did at University College London, and afterwards under Liebig at Giessen, where he took his doctor's degree. At Liebig's request, Playfair translated into English the former's work on the Chemistry of Agriculture, and represented Liebig at a meeting of the British Association at Glasgow. The outcome of his studies was his engagement in 1841 as chemical manager of the Primrose print-works at Clitheroe, a post which he held for rather more than a year.
In 1843 he was elected honorary professor of chemistry to the Royal Institution of Manchester, and soon afterwards was appointed a member of the Royal Commission on the Health of Towns, a body whose investigations may be said to have laid the foundations of modern sanitation. In 1846 he was appointed chemist to the geological survey, and thenceforward was constantly employed by the public departments in matters of sanitary and chemical inspection. The opportunity of his life came with the 185s Exhibition, of which he was one of the special commissioners. For his services in this connection he was made C.B., and his work had the additional advantage of bringing him into close personal relations with the Prince Consort, who appointed him gentleman usher in his household.
From 1856 to 1869 he was professor of chemistry at Edinburgh University. In 1868 he was elected to represent the universities of Edinburgh and St Andrews in parliament, and retained his seat till 1885, from which date until 1892 he sat as member for Leeds. In 1873 he was made postmaster-general, and in the following year, after the dissolution of parliament, was applied to by the incoming Tory government to preside over a commission to inquire into the working of the civil service. Its report established a completely new system, which has ever since been officially known as the Playfair scheme.
The return of Mr Gladstone to power in 1880 afforded opportunity for Playfair to resume his interrupted parliamentary career, and from that time until 1883 he acted as chairman of committees during a period when the obstructive tactics of the Irish party were at their height. On his retirement from the post he was made K.C.B. In 1892 he was created Baron Playfair of St Andrews, and a little later was appointed lord-in-waiting to the queen. In 1895 he was given the G.C.B.
In spite of failing health the last years of his life were full of activity, one of his latest public acts being his suggestion that Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee of 1897 should be commemorated by the completion of the South Kensington Museum. He died in London, after a short illness, on the 29th of May 1898, and was buried at St Andrews. He was three times married. He was the author of a number of papers on scientific and social topics, a selection from which he published in 1889 under the title of Subjects of Social Welfare.
A memoir by Sir Wemyss Reid was published in 1899.
Being the entry for PLAYFAIR, LYON PLAYFAIR, 1st BARON in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the text of which lies within the public domain.