Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement/Playfair, Lyon
PLAYFAIR, LYON, first Baron Playfair of St. Andrews (1818–1898), was born on 21 May 1818 at Chunar, Bengal, and was the son of George Playfair, chief inspector-general of hospitals in Bengal, by his wife Janet, daughter of John Ross of Edinburgh. James Playfair [q. v.] was his grandfather; Sir Robert Lambert Playfair [q. v. Suppl.] was his younger brother.
Lyon was sent home to St. Andrews, the seat of his father's family, at the age of two, and received his early education at the parish school, from which he proceeded to the university of St. Andrews in 1832. On leaving this university, Playfair spent a very short time in Glasgow as clerk in the office of his uncle, James Playfair, and then (1835) commenced to study for the medical profession, entering the classes of Thomas Graham [q. v.] in chemistry at the Andersonian Institute in Glasgow. In 1837, on Graham's appointment to a chair in London, Playfair entered the classes of the Edinburgh University with the object of completing his medical course, but his health broke down and he was compelled to abandon his work. He then visited Calcutta, where, at his father's wish, he again entered a business house, only to leave it after a very short interval, and return to England to resume the study of chemistry. After spending some time as private laboratory assistant to Graham at University College, London, he worked with Liebig at Giessen (1839-40), where he graduated Ph.D. In 1841 he became chemical manager of Thomson's calico works at Primrose, near Clitheroe, but resigned this position in the following year, and was appointed honorary professor of chemistry to the Royal Institution, Manchester, a post which he occupied until 1845.
Playfair had visited Giessen at the moment when Liebig, at the height of his fame as an investigator and teacher, was beginning to turn his attention to the applications of organic chemistry to agriculture and vegetable physiology, and was engaged in the composition of his celebrated work on these subjects. Playfair, as Liebig's representative, presented this book to the British Association for the Advancement of Science at the Glasgow meeting (1840), as part of a report on the state of organic chemistry, and he afterwards prepared the English edition of the book. Its publication attracted the attention of scientific men interested in the rational pursuit of agriculture, to which Liebig's influence gave a great impulse. Consequently, when Playfair proposed in 1842 to apply for the professorship of chemistry at Toronto, Sir Robert Peel was induced to seek an interview with him, and persuade him to stay at home. Thenceforth constant use was made of his services in public inquiries and on royal commissions.
In 1845 Playfair was appointed chemist to the Geological Survey, afterwards becoming professor in the new School of Mines at Jermyn Street, and in this capacity was engaged in many investigations, among the most important of which were the determination of the best coals for steam navigation, and the inquiry into the condition of the potato disease in Ireland (1845).
Although Playfair returned from Giessen in 1841, inspired with something of Liebig's enthusiasm for research, the amount of purely scientific investigation which he carried out was relatively small, owing to the fact that his time was largely spent in inquiries which rather involved the practical applications of scientific principles than the discovery of new facts. His most important investigations are those on the nitroprussides, a new class of salts which he discovered; on the atomic volume and specific gravity of hydrated salts (in conjunction with Joule), and on the gases of the blast furnace (in conjunction with Bunsen). He was elected F.R.S. in 1848, and was president of the Chemical Society in 1857-9, and of the British Association in 1885 at Aberdeen, while he twice acted as president of the chemistry section of the British Association.
In 1850 Playfair was appointed a special commissioner and member of the executive committee of the Great Exhibition of 1851. He took an active part in the general organisation of the exhibition, in securing the adequate representation of the various British industries, and in arranging the juries of award and appeal, as well as in the judicious investment of the large surplus that the exhibition realised. His services in these respects were rewarded by the commandership of the Bath, and by his appointment to the position of gentleman usher in the household of the Prince Consort. His connection with the Great Exhibition of 1851 led to his taking a prominent part in furthering the Prince Consort's endeavours to secure for the nation technical instruction in the application of science to industry, with which he was in full agreement. At the close of the exhibition he made a private inquiry into the state of education and technical instruction on the continent of Europe, and lectured on the subject after his return.
In 1853 the department of Science and Art was formed, and Playfair was made secretary for science, Sir Henry Cole [q. v.] occupying a similar position for art. In 1855 the department was reorganised, and Playfair was made secretary of the united departments. As secretary of the Science and Art department Playfair took a leading share in the organisation of the Royal College of Science and the South Kensington Museum, afterwards (1899) renamed the Victoria and Albert Museum.
On the death of William Gregory (1803-1858) [q. v.] in 1858 Playfair was appointed to the chair of chemistry at Edinburgh, which he occupied until 1869. On his appointment he resigned his post in the Prince Consort's household and in the Science and Art department, but was still engaged largely in public work, serving on many royal commissions, and taking an active part in the exhibition of 1862.
The various committees of inquiry and royal commissions in which he took a leading part included those on the health of towns, the herring fishery, the cattle plague, the civil service (which was reorganised on the 'Playfair scheme'), the Scottish universities, endowed schools, and the Thirlmere water scheme. But these employments did not by any means exhaust his activity. In 1869 he became a member of the commission of the 1851 exhibition, and in 1874 was appointed a member of the committee of inquiry which undertook the management of the commission's business affairs. In 1883 he became honorary secretary of this committee, and succeeded in bringing about a most important improvement in its financial prospects, which at the time of his appointment were most unsatisfactory. The surplus funds of the exhibition had been invested in land at South Kensington, part of which was utilised for residential buildings, and part to provide sites for buildings of national importance and for educational institutions. In 1883 there was a considerable annual deficit, but in 1889, when Playfair resigned his honorary secretaryship, this had been converted into an income of 5,000l. per annum, and has since considerably increased. This money was employed to found science scholarships of 150l. a year, to be held by advanced students nominated by the science colleges of this country and the colonies.
In 1868 Playfair was returned to parliament in the liberal interest as member for the universities of Edinburgh and St. Andrews, which he continued to represent until 1885. On his election to the House of Commons he resigned his chair at Edinburgh (1869) and returned to London, where he henceforth resided. His influence in parliament was steadily exerted in favour of the improvement of both the education and the social and sanitary surroundings of the people. While he represented the universities, he in fact confined himself entirely to social and educational questions. A number of his speeches in parliament and elsewhere on these subjects were collected and published in 1889, under the title 'Subjects of Social Welfare.' In 1873 he became postmaster-general in Gladstone's first ministry, but the government went out of office early in the following year. In the parliament of 1880 he was elected chairman and deputy speaker of the House of Commons, a position which he held until 1883, when he resigned this very onerous office and was made K.C.B. As chairman during the period of active obstruction by the Irish members in 1881-2, he showed great tact and firmness, but his action in suspending sixteen members en bloc on 1 July 1882, although strictly in accord with precedent, was the occasion of much unfavourable comment from the press. The cabinet also declared that they could no longer support the interpretation of the rule. The persons who expressed themselves most confident of his fairness, patience, and impartiality were the Irish members themselves. The incident led indirectly to his resignation of the post.
At the election of 1885 he withdrew from the representation of the universities, and, identifying himself more closely than before with party politics, was returned as liberal member for South Leeds. That constituency he continued to represent until 1892. Playfair joined Gladstone's home rule ministry of 1886 as vice-president of the council, but left office within five months of his appointment, on the resignation of the ministry in June.
In 1892 Playfair's many services to the State were rewarded, on Gladstone's accession to power for the fourth time, by his elevation to the peerage under the style of Baron Playfair of St. Andrews. In the same year he was made lord-in-waiting to the queen. His time was still devoted to public affairs, and in 1894–5 he served as a member of the aged poor commission, and afterwards took an active part in negotiations for the arbitration of the Venezuela question, in which his intimate knowledge of American politics, gained during his annual visits to his third wife's home, was of great service. In 1895, on the recommendation of Lord Rosebery, he received the order of Grand Cross of the Bath.
In 1896 his health began to fail. He passed the winter of 1897 at Torquay, but returned in April to his residence in Onslow Gardens, where he died on 29 May 1898. He was buried at St. Andrews. Playfair was below the average height, and was strikingly intellectual in appearance. He was gifted with great delicacy and tact, had a strong sense of humour, and was an admirable conversationalist. He received many honours from foreign governments in connection with his work at various international exhibitions.
Playfair was married three times: first, in 1846, to Margaret Eliza, daughter of James Oakes of Biddings House, Alfreton, who died in 1855; secondly, in 1857, to Jean Ann, daughter of Crawley Millington of Crawley House, who died in 1877; thirdly, in 1878, to Edith, daughter of Samuel Hammond Russell of Boston, United States of America. By his first wife he had an only son, George James Playfair, who succeeded him as second baron.
[Memoirs and Corresp. of Lyon Playfair by Sir Wemyss Reid (containing a large amount of autobiographical matter), 1899; biographical sketch in Nature, lviii. 128, by Sir Henry Roscoe; Lucy's Diary of Two Parliaments, 1886, vol. ii.]