To liberty and beyond
The story of the University of Aberdeen is woven into the history of the United States. As the young American republic took its first steps, Aberdeen doctors, clergy, scientists and philosophers were a rich source of inspiration and ideas.
Marischal College alumnus James Blair founded the College of William and Mary in Virginia in 1693 where three of America’s first ten presidents were educated, including Thomas Jefferson, principal author of The Declaration of Independence.
Another Aberdonian, William Small, joined the faculty at William & Mary as professor of natural philosophy in 1758. Small was a talented teacher and a major influence on Jefferson, instilling in him a deep appreciation of the sciences, mathematics and the great thinkers of The Scottish Enlightenment.
“It was my great good fortune, and what probably ﬁxed the destinies of my life that Dr. Wm. Small of Scotland was then professor of Mathematics, a man profound in most of the useful branches of science, with a happy talent of communication, correct and gentlemanly manners, and an enlarged and liberal mind. He, most happily for me, became soon attached to me & made me his daily companion when not engaged in the school; and from his conversation I got my ﬁrst views of the expansion of science and of the system of things in which we are placed.” Thomas Jefferson Autobiography
One such thinker was the eminent Aberdeen philosopher Thomas Reid who, along with the poet James Beattie, was widely read in America.
And Benjamin Franklin was so impressed with the educational vision of the Aberdeen clergyman William Smith that in 1755 he appointed him the first provost of the College of Philadelphia, now the University of Pennsylvania.
By the mid-18th century, Aberdeen alumni were exporting their knowledge and skills ‘across the pond’ in all manner of ways.
Hugh Mercer was assistant surgeon to Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobite army and fled to America after the Battle of Culloden in 1746. He practised medicine in Pennsylvania and became a friend of none other than George Washington who made him Brigadier General in the Continental Army.
“His character was marked with all the traits of one of the heroes of antiquity...” Benjamin Rush, A Founding Father of America, on General Hugh Mercer
General Mercer died at the Battle of Princeton in 1777 when British soldiers fatally wounded him, thinking he was General Washington. Not surprisingly he became a hero with namesakes from Kentucky to Illinois and even gets a mention in the lyrics in The Room Where It Happens in the Tony award-winning Broadway musical Hamilton.
In Washington DC, there’s a remarkable legacy of one Aberdeen polymath. William Thornton – who graduated MD from Aberdeen in 1784 – designed the US Capitol Building and went on to become the first Superintendent of the US Patent Office.
“...I was overwhelmed with the loss of the best friend I had on Earth.” William Thornton on the death of George Washington
One of the greatest American-Scots of the 20th century on our roll of honorary graduates is the industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie who also served as our Lord Rector from 1911 – 1914. Carnegie believed that “philanthropy was his gift to the future... and that education is our greatest tool.”