John Adamson was born in 1809 (or 1810, according to some sources) in Fife, Scotland, the first of ten children born to farmers Alexander and Rachel Melville Adamson. After completing his undergraduate studies, he went to the University of Edinburgh to study medicine, and was awarded his medical license by the Royal College of Surgeons in 1829. After his postgraduate studies in Dublin and Paris, he practiced medicine in India and China before returning to Scotland and opening a medical practice in 1835. Three years' later, he became the curator of St. Andrews University museum, while serving as a part-time chemistry and natural science lecturer at the University's Madras College. Dr. Adamson later married Esther Alexander, and the couple had a daughter, Tetty.
In his capacity as lecturer, he became acquainted with esteemed physicist and photography pioneer Sir David Brewster. It is believed Dr. Adamson was introduced to photography after becoming a member of Dr. Brewster's St. Andrews Literary and Philosophical Society. Dr. Brewster discussed with him the various calotype techniques he learned from daguerreotype innovator William Henry Talbot. Dr. Adamson quickly applied his knowledge to producing Scotland's first inked calotype image, the print and negative of which now reside in the National Museums of Scotland. After a promising start, his experiments hit serious snag when the images began to fade rapidly. He shared his output with Mr. Talbot, and perhaps with his assistance, applied additional chemicals that improved their durability. Dr. Adamson's brother Robert, then an engineering student, assisted his brother in the laboratory, and subsequently teamed with fellow photographer David Octavius Hill to open a studio in Edinburgh, aptly named Hill & Adamson. The gallery's close association with Dr. Adamson produced some of the most vivid portraits in Edinburgh or anywhere. Meanwhile, Dr. Adamson honed his photographic skills by making family portraits and chronicling the lives of Scottish fishermen, during which time he became very concerned about the appalling sanitation conditions within the local fishing villages.
After Robert Adamson's premature death in 1848, Mr. Hill hoped to resume his successful partnership with Dr. Adamson taking his younger sibling's place. However, Dr. Adamson considered himself merely an amateur photographer, and while he continued to experiment with the medium and mentoring apprentices (most notably, Thomas Rodger), he remained committed to the vocation of medical science for the remainder of his life. Dr. John Adamson died in St. Andrews in 1870, and his photographic contributions appeared to fade into obscurity for the next century, when historians began revisiting his technical achievements. Many of his surviving calotypes can currently be found in the National Museums of Scotland, the St. Andrews Preservation Trust, the St. Andrews University Library, and the J. Paul Getty Museum. His hometown of St. Andrews honors him with a blue plaque on his former home on South Street, which is now the home of the popular Adamson Restaurant.
2011 The Beginning and End of the World by Robert Crawford (Edinburgh, UK: Birlinn Limited), p. 75.
2013 Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, Vol. I (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group LLC), pp. 6-8.
1985 The J. Paul Getty Museum Journal: Vol. XIII (Malibu, CA: The J. Paul Getty Museum), p. 228.
2016 John Adamson (URL: https://www.nationalgalleries.org/collection/artists-a-z/a/artist/john-adamson).
1870 The Lancet, Vol. II (London: John James Croft), p. 316.
2016 Photography Greats to be Celebrated at New Festival (URL: http://www.amateurphotographer.co.uk/latest/photo-news/photographic-greats-celebrated-new-festival-79950).
2012 The Photography of Victorian Scotland by Roddy Simpson (Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press, Ltd.), pp. 13-14.
1984 Popular Photography (Los Angeles: Ziff-Davis Publishing Company), p. 68.
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