The Edinburgh Life and Academic Experience

The preparatory years for his choice of degrees were spent by Colden at Edinburgh, one of the four major teaching institutions in Scotland around 1700.  Perhaps this higher education activity began with Cadwallader Colden following in his father’s footsteps.  By obtaining his degree at Edinburgh, he pretty much began with the notion of enrolling in some form of formal education in Theology, the primary degree provided by Edinburgh during the time his father was enrolled in a program for the Master of Arts. 

However, time has a way of changing things within the academic world.  The late 1600s was a major period of change in religion and natural philosophy.  This made enrolling at the University around 1700 very different from the same action taken 25 years earlier.  His father Alexander earned his degree from Edinburgh in 1675, and was enrolled from approximately 1672/3 to 1675 assuming his graduation required three years of enrollment.  This graduation was about twelve or thirteen years before Colden was born.  Alexander Colden used this education to begin his career in the local church settings.  By the time Cadwallader was born, Alexander was serving at a church in Dun, northnorthwest of Coldingham. 

Unlike his father, Cadwallader was probably a bit more ambitious about his goals at school and with his life.  During his period of enrollment at Edinburgh, he was able to take advantage of some of the much newer topics being offered in the program.  These topics were not only new to the University, but also new to the world of religion, politics and science in general.  This educational freedom was an important benefit Cadwallader’s father experienced from about 1671/2 to April 7th, 1675, now it was Cadwallader’s turn.   This meant that those topics that were new to Alexander’s years spent at Edinburgh had since become highly popular by Cadwallader’s time, such as the formation and evolution of the earth, and Isaac Newton’s influences upon the sciences and religion.  Even to his father, some of Cadwallader’s experiences studying these new ways of thinking could have seemed fairly critical of the church’s teachings regarding natural theology in general.   Were it not for some of the Protestant teachings then popular in certain parts of Scotland, Alexander may not have even read about or heard about the new philosophies now being promoted by the university and his son Cadwallader.  Like most typical parent-child relationships, the claims and statements made by Cadwallader were either something to assign a fatherly respect for, or something to try and remain completely detached from, something not to be discussed at the dining room table.

Within the academic setting from 1700/1 to 1705 approximately, Cadwallader had the options of taking just the classes provided as part of the Theology program, like his father, or take the more adventurous route to knowledge.  Apparently its was not the focus of Cadwallader to be schooled in just theology at Edinburgh.  To retain the appearances of engaging in religious teachings and thought was to study morality, natural philosophy, the needs of people and the leading political stands for the time, which were the topics that Cadwallader Colden tended to focus upon.  Based on his later writings we can deduce that Cadwallader’s interest at this time was very much drawn towards the reformative movement taking place within intellectual communities.  This Reform in science and religion impacted the traditional teachings about the world and the universe, the place of earth within this cosmos, and the relationship between these entities  in relation to the cause, purpose and meaning of life.   Colden’s attraction to this topic is evidenced by the numbers of letters that he sent and topics that he discussed and wrote about that are in some way linked to Isaac Newton’s findings and teachings.

One major effect of the reformation on science, religion and the church was that this movement ultimately led to a division of followers within the traditional religious settings.  Those who were orthodoxical maintained that everything stated by the Bible is true, whereas those adhering to the non-traditional, reformative principles began to believe that creation did not just take place the way people we were always taught.  This most likely put Cadwallader in a fairly uncomfortable position at times with his father, as well as other important church leaders and members.  As traditional as the Edinburgh University was always felt to be, like any new thought invoking public place, Edinburgh’s professors did not always produce graduates who were complete in their natural theological training and therefore beliefs.  Cawallader Colden was one of these new types of students graduating from their program. 

In spite of the family history of religious leadership and the fairly new ways of thinking the reformed natural philosophy students and scientists were taking, Colden maintained his interest in this philosophical direction and explored the various disciplines Edinburgh had to offer him while attending classes there.  In 1705, Cadwallader completed his education at Edinburgh, for which a note was made on the 26th of April, and the Laureate officially received for this honor on the 27th of April.  

[Some of the following photos were slightly modified from originals.]

Transcribed rendering of the same:

It is difficult to define exactly the various topics and books that Cadwallader’s education at Edinburgh required of him.  No doubt, because his degree was not a professional degree such as a medical degree, his education was probably comprised of some of the basic topics that helped to make up a students career-training at Edinburgh.  According to the Edinburgh Laureate book detailing the students who received degrees at this time, the names of their mentors and/or professors, and for some a brief description of some unique accomplishment or special achievements, it appears as though Colden’s training was in multiple areas, not just the “classics” associated with this form of education.

The preceptors present at the ceremony awarding these students for their accomplishments represented several major fields of study then providing some form of education and training at Edinburgh.  One of the preceptors rewarding the students was trained in the law, another in the basic liberal arts related to the classical writers and religion, and three others of an undeterminable specialty based on the document.   Several notes or documents in the ledger also pertain to education in the ‘Art of Medicine’.

[Some of the following photos were slightly modified from originals.]



A transcription of the Register of Laureations was published in 1858 [A Catalogue of the Graduates in the Faculty of the Arts, Divinity and Law, of the University of Edinburgh, Since its Formation, Neill and Company, Edinburgh], with a similar document published separately detailing those who received medical degrees.  This provided some background information for the University, with which the professors in charge of awarding the  Laureates to Colden and his classmates could be identified as to their specialties. 

Close up of sections of original document (top image = Ars Medica, bottom = Masters of Arts):

Listing of faculty histories for the departments (Colden’s teachers who were members of his committee are highlighted):

Colden obtained a standard basic degree of Master of Arts at Edinburgh, specializing in Greek Language (and possibly history, and the Latin language with this department), “Moral Philosophy”, “Natural Philosophy” and “Public Law and Law of Nature and Nations”.   The first three departments were part of the School and Faculty of Arts [or Arts and Philosophy], with William Scott, William Law and Robert Stewart, respectively serving as their representatives.  The latter faculty member represented the School and Faculty of Law, represented by Charles Erskine.  The Primario or Regens (Principal) for this formal reception, William Carstaers [Carstares], was a graduate of the July 2nd, 1667 class, acording to original documents at Edinburgh.  He is list as a principal in 1703 in A Catalogue of the Graduates (1848), and according to Cassell’s Old and New Edinburgh (v. 5, p. 24), was still serving as Primario in 1705 .

Edinburgh’s Schools and Departments.

According to An Edinburgh Catalogue of the Graduates . . . , the areas of speciality that were defined or about to be defined as unique studies at Edinburgh were as follows.  These are the possible departments with classes that Cadwallader could have particpated in, beginning in 1701, for his Masters of Arts program:

School and Faculty of Theology

  • Divinity – 1620
  • Hebrew – 1634
  • Divinity and Ecclesiastical History – 1695

School and Faculty of Arts

  • Mathematics – 1674
  • Humanity – 1708
  • Greek – 1708
  • Logic and Metaphysics – 1708
  • Moral Philosophy – 1708
  • Natural Philosophy – 1708

School and Faculty of Law

  • Public Law and Law of Nature and Nations – 1707

School and Faculty of Medicine

  • Botany – 1676
  • Physic – 1685
  • Anatomy – 1705

Topics yet to become popular during Colden’s years were (in chronological order):

  • School of Law–Civil Law (initiated 1710)
  • School of Medicine–Chemistry (initiated 1713)
  • School of the Arts–Universal Civil History and Antiquities (initiated 1719).

According to what we know about Cadwallader’s activities later in life, we can deduce that his primary areas of interest were probably natural philosophy and the natural sciences (esp. botany), mathematics, engineering and surveying, and various forms of what might be termed today as political science.   There are four areas of study in particular for this time that deserve special attention, for their definitions are atypical or very much unlike programs with less detailed titles often available today in college or university settings.  The following are these four areas of interest and their definitions. 

Moral Philosophy.  During the age of enlightenment, philosophers questioned religion and its basic beliefs regarding  traditional values. One consequence of enlightenment was the public questioning of moral values designed based on a religious guidance.  By questioning religion, you question morality, and so need to define a new moral system that is justifiable based on these new beliefs.  Important influences or products of the movement in Colden’s time: Kant, Betham, Hume.  For Colden’s point of view on this, see An Introduction to the Study of Philosophy.

Natural Philosophy.  The study of nature and the physical universe and their parts.  In 1687, Isaac Newton wrote The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, in which he tried to define a single set of rules or mathematical principles upon which the natural laws could be based and nearly event that took place explained.  An analysis of common natural events take place, followed by the recognition of common factors that can be used to synthesize a single  theory applicable to explaining each of these events.  Scientific discussion and debates follow in order to define a final principle or law of events.  Important influences:  Plato, Francis Bacon, Descartes (dualism), Robert Boyle. 

Logic and Metaphysics.  Logic: the study of reason and relationships, which have to take place and exist due to some defineable set of events.  Metaphysics: a detailed review of the events that happen, often compared with Logic, but not necessarily identical in nature, cause or origin.  Metaphysics normally pays close attention to the details of the events.  Logic deals with details as well, but only for purposes of determining relations and conclusions.  Logic alone may not be sufficient to explain the division between church and scientific or natural philosophical findings and conclusions.  Metaphysical routes of explanation thus become significantly more satisfying.

Public Law and Law of Nature and Nations.  Essentially borne out of a book of the same name by Baron Samuel Frieherr Pufendorf (1632-1694).  Translated into English beginning around 1700 and by 1725 perfected pretty much in terms of content.  This writing reviews such topics as the understanding of man, the will of man, social morality, the laws of nature, the meaning and purpose of law, the purpose of legal contracts, gender powers, sovereignty, the rights to engage in disputes or war, the history of the church, culture and power, “the science of Morality”, moral actions taken in relation to knowledge and the law, the purpose of law, the problems of living without laws, the duties of man, the just defense of one’s self, the right and privilege of neccessity, ‘that no man be hurt, or, reparation to be made’, etc.

Academic Life

We have one additional source of information providing us with an additional view on life at Edinburgh University.  John Chamberlayne penned a fairly detailed description of the academic experience at Edinburgh University for 1708 or 1709.  This description covers a period just 3 or 4 years after Cadwallader’s graduation, but still pertains pretty much to the same program he would have been enrolled in according to the histories demonstrated above by the faculty and department lists.  By the time Chamberlayne’s description was published (1710), the programs available at Edinburgh would have been well underway and perhaps stabilized, with the responsibilities on behalf of the students more set in stone.  These descriptions are found in Chamberlayne’s book published in 1710 entitled Magna Brittania Notitia, Or, The Present State of Great Britain,  a book has which served much like a gazetteer for the time.



Cadwallader engaged in this program from 1701 to 1705.  He was 17 years of age at the time of completion.  It appears as though Colden was most interested in becoming a man of many professions.  Very early on he became a writer in several fields of study and was soon to become a scientist interested in astronomy, physics and natural philosophy.  Because he was pretty aggressive at pursuing his life goal in politics, remaining very interested in several areas of study in the natural sciences along the way, he became a published expert in all of these fields of study.  It is also very likely that some of the topics Colden might have had to take classes in at Edinburgh University were less appealing to him, such as classes in an aspect of theology or traditional religion (theology) and any of the activities religious professors were engaged in with the goal of countering Isaac Newton’s with their own study of natural theology (the religious definition of science and existence).  This perhaps even matched to some extent the theological discipline taught by professors at Edinburgh to his father, and were part of the father’s goal for enrolling Cadwallader at this school.   

The types of social and political issues Colden would learn about included the classical and more modern means of designing and running a government for a large nation of people, a review of important moral questions concerning the rights of the poor and the social inequality some civilizations were beginning to face, and the growing public concerns for the time about whether or not blending natural sciences and philosophy with natural theology, and the new chronology of the world being published in geography books, will actually help the people better understand their place in the world and whether or not this ideology factually, morally and philosophically correct.  Due to Isaac Newton’s studies, such programs helped students decide whether or not to stand by the traditional viewpoints of the church, or begin to respect the more “modern” teachings of the leaders in science, at a time when these academicians were viewed as combatants to the traditional teachings and followings of church. 

It was perhaps not unknown to Cadwallader Colden’s father during this period of Edinburgh’s history that these social and political arguments had already commenced.  this means that by encouraging his son to attend Edinburgh, that he must have known he was taking a risk regarding how his son would come out of this education process, how he would choose to undertake his next stage in life.  Alexander Colden’s initial hopes were perhaps that Cadwallader would take a more traditional route in the education process, enrolling in the various theological courses offered at Edinburgh since it began its classes when Alexander was attending these programs (ca. 1675-1670).  In short time, however, Cadwallader did not take this route in his education process, instead participating in some sort of traditional government and public services related training program.  Yet, this too was not exactly the route taken by Cadwallader Colden.  Like many university students (today and in the past), he developed his own philosophy by interacting with his peers and with members of the intellectual community.  In due time, he was more in line with their areas of interest than those of his father.  In the end, this meant that Cadwallader might have become fairly detached from some of the traditional religious teachings his father tended to favor.  Since an exact transcript of classes which he enrolled in is not known at this time, we can only speculate about this, making such guesses based mostly upon his future accomplishments and writing topics.  Whatever the case, by engaging in such an educational and ultimately career path, we can surmise that Cadwallader probably did not enroll too much in the traditional theological classes offered at Edinburgh as his father might have wanted.  Instead, he became a reformist and one of the followers and diffusers of knowledge of this new way of thinking.

In just a few years, some writings suggest that Cadwallader Colden and others like him would have been considered the main instigators of criticisms from religious leaders and the church.  Some of these writers even identified these new thinkers as ‘atheists’, a label the family may have been very uncomfortable with.  It is possible that in order to contest and hopefully calm the controversies that scientists like Isaac Newton and Rene Descartes were initiating with their writings, read as part of the classes in Edinburgh, that Cadwallader may have attempted to appease his father’s concerns about this for a short while.  Considering a career in medicine may have been decided upon to sidestep this otherwise disconcerting route of education Cadwallader pursued. 

Unlike his father Alexander Colden, at the time of his graduation with the Master of Arts degree, Cadwallader had several mentors and associates at the school not like those of the earlier years.  The new departments in science enabled this to happen during the early 1700s.  For this reason, Cadwallader was able to develop some important personal communications following his graduation that were possibly enexpected by his father, individual who his father shared a common age range with but not the same sorts of generational thinking.   Such examples of these intellectuals include of  course Isaac Newton and  Edmund Halley, each with their discoveries regarding the age and natural behaviors of the Universe.  But also important to Cadwallader’s upbringing during his early career years include:

  • John Ray (1627-1705, English naturalist, natural philosopher and medical botanist)
  • John Locke (1632-1704, philosopher and physician)
  • Bernardus Varenius (1622-1651) and Newton (1643-1727), “Modern” Geographers, published ca. 1645-1675)
  • Hermann Boerhaave (1668-1738, Dutch professor of natural philosophy, chemistry and medicine)
  • George Berkeley (1685-1753, natural philosopher)
  • Joseph Butler (1692-1752, natural philosopher)
  • Pat Gordon (author of Geography Anatomized, 1ed. ca 1700, 3ed. 1704, at least up to 20th ed. 1760)
  • Linnaeus and followers (Linnaeus-1707-1778, physician and botanist)
  • Various rewriters, editors and publishers of the works of Galen, Plato, Cicero, and Lucretius. 

Cadwallader would ultimately do the same for himself in just a few generations, assisting in the rewrite of Cicero’s letters on government and producing his own version of Newtonian physics and life.

By using his desire to continue to learn and practice what was taught in this field in the years ahead, we can pretty much deduce some of the basic classes he probably took.  For this reason, it is theorized that perhaps one of the better ways to understand Colden’s teachings and activities at Edinburgh, one has to review what were considered the classics for the time (ca. 1704-1707), the most important “modern” writers, philosophies and mathematicians and scienctists for the time, and review the various writings then being published and considered as popular. 

We can also find this type of information in the advertisements and releases of the popular and scholastic press worlds.  The main books for the time can be linked to major topics for the time, included those which students were probably engaged in during their education at Edinburgh.  Likewise a review of the various theses and dissertations cited in the Edinburgh ledger might help to provide some insight into this question as well.   Finally, by linking Colden’s educational upbringing at the college with books published soonafter this period, were are led to understand better the various avenues these fields were taken at the time of his education.  Quite often, these newly published writers often discuss their topics in retrospection, using past experiences to argue their claims and relate whatever issues were being covered to the modern philosophy.  This means that the books published from 1705 to 1715 will provide us a clue as to what the consequences of the type of reformation taking place during Colden’s years of education actually put him through, and what if any impacts they had on his subsequent field of study and practice in medicine as a whole.  This sequencing of events will very much link them to what and why Colden wrote about things the way he did.  A number of Colden’s essays seemed not to be produced with any desire to publish in mind, for a number of these writings remain substantially unreviewed or unhandled by the academic world.  

Listings and descriptions of Cadwallader Colden’s writings appear in several biographies posted on another page at this site.  The following is a brief summary of the types of scholarly or academic experiences Colden had as a result of what what he had learned and was exposed to within the college setting at Edinburgh, i.e. the knowledge of:

  • Governmental practices, Peoples, and the Republic
  • Latin and/or Botanical Latin Language
  • Moral Philosophy
  • Natural Philosophy, and the study of Natural Forces within the universe and its various parts (electricity, magnetism, light; planets versus rocks/gems vs. living beings)
  • Laws of the People, and the Moral, Physical and Metaphysical Laws of Nature
  • Geography, physiography (landforms), climate and weather, natural history
  • The basic biology and development of various life forms, including human body form and temperament, and the mechanical and metaphysical theories and laws of nature, and the physiology of movement in animate beings

As noted by the Edinburgh documents, medicine was offered as a distinct program called Ars medica.   Completion of this program was honored for each class at a time separate from those receiving their Laurels for completing a degree approximating that of a simple bachelor’s degree.  Colden did not take this approach to learning medicine, but instead took on an apprenticeship in London.  The reasons for his choice (or his father’s choice) of London is not known.  At the time this decision was made, there were only two hospitals that provided an individual with a setting to learn medicine.  This meant Colden took on an acceptible and equally respected approach which many were forced to take at this time–an apprenticeship by a physician considered an acceptible preceptor by the local licensing or accrediting groups. 



Edinburgh University enrollment lists and Register of Laureations respectfully accessed at ‘University of Edinburgh Student Archives, Laureation and Degrees, 1587-1809’, last accessed on 03/01/10 at

A Catalogue of the Graduates in the Faculty of the Arts, Divinity and Law, of the University of Edinburgh, Since its Formation (Neill and Company, Edinburgh, 1858) is available through GoogleBooks.

Cassell’s Old and New Edinburgh can be accessed at

Pufendorf’s original works:  Elementorum Iurisprudentiae Universalis Libri Duo, 1660; De Statu Imperii Germanici ad Laelium Fratrem, Dominum Trezolani, Liber Unus, 1667; De Iure Naturae et Gentium Libri Octo, 1672; De Officio Hominis et Civis prout ipsi praescribuntur Lege Naturali, 1673; Einleitung zu der Historie der vornehmsten Reiche und Staaten, so itziger Zeit in Europa sich befinden, 1682/85; Commentariorum De Rebus Suecicis ab Expeditione Gustavi Adolphi in Germaniam ad Abdicationem usque Christinae, 1686; Über die Natur und Eigenschaft der christlichen Religion und Kirche in Ansehung des bürgerlichen Lebens und Staats, 1687; De Rebus Gestis Friderici Wilhelmi Magni Electoris Brandenburgici Commentariorum Libri, posthum 1695. 

 Edinburgh, 1827  Source: Wikipedia.


Also see [German].

For a controversy related to the Newton-Church relationship, and the role and impact of Leibnitz had in relation to these teachings, see

Colden’s Biography, according to Edinburgh: