Patrick Geddes ~ Biologist, Sociologist, Geographer, Philanthropist and Pioneering Town Planner

Patrick Geddes although born in Balater, West Aberdeenshire (2 October  1854) spent his formative and school years in Perth and Kinnoull. The range of his work and achievements were so wide that amongst the descriptions of Geddes to be found are, biologist, economist, sociologist, geographer, city planner, art critic, academic revolutionary, ecologist and producer of pageants. Such a variety formed part of a lifelong attempt to show how knowledge existing in differing aspects is inter-related.

As Geddes said his aim was to, ‘see life whole’.

From his childhood living and playing on Kinnoull Hill and from his schooling at the old Perth Academy in Rose Terrace, Geddes would draw on his love and wonder of the Perthshire countryside and wildlife.

Perth Academy published a magazine, The Young Barbarian. In the 1922 edition, the future medical pioneer, James Mackenzie, contributed an article in which he referred to another Perth Academy pupil, ‘Pat Geddes’ as ‘a nice-looking, plucky little chap…I remember a great fight he had on the North Inch with a boy belong to a different school’. Another classmate was the theatre critic, William Archer.

After an abortive week of study at Edinburgh University, Geddes went to the Royal College of Mines, London to study biology with Thomas Henry Huxley the principal advocate of Darwin’s theories. Graduating as a professional botanist, Geddes resided in Chelsea whilst in London so as to be near both the philosopher Thomas Carlyle and art critic and social commentator John Ruskin. [1] He then spent the years 1889-1919 as Professor of Botany at the University of Dundee. His work on the evolution of protozoa was considered groundbreaking. A garden at the University was opened in Geddes’ name in 1954 on the 100th anniversary of his birth.

During the 1880s he lived in Edinburgh with his wife Anna Morton whom he had married in 1886, and fulfilled an important role in the renewal of the older slum parts of the City. These included the Ramsay Garden complex and the Outlook Tower at Castlehill, which was a laboratory for the observation of people and study of sociology. The tower also functioned as a museum containing artefacts about the life of Edinburgh and Scotland. During this period the couple’s home in James Court and the Outlook Tower became centres for discussion and both literary and artistic activity for many differing people and opinions. Later in the 1920s Hugh McDiarmid would be a frequent visitor to the Outlook Tower. Anna would later die tragically of fever in Calcutta and Geddes would marry again in 1928 to a Lillian Brown.

It was after an attack of blindness caused by excessive use of microscopes during a fossil-hunting trip to Mexico, that Geddes turned to sociology. It is from this time that Geddes devised a method of employing folded paper to create thinking machines.

Geddes was a pioneer of the field of town and country planning, a concept that he developed from the ideas and writing of Charles Darwin. For Geddes the Darwinian evolutionary theory could be applied to people and the growth of society. His ‘Evolution of Sex’ produced jointly with naturalist John Arthur Thomson in 1889 was an attempt to make evolutionary theory the motor for the development of history, ethics and sociology. This was further considered in ‘City Development: a Study of Parks, Gardens and Culture Institutes. A Report to the Carnegie Trust for Dunfermline’ (1904) and ‘Cities in Evolution’ (1915) from which the field of urban planning and civics are considered to have been born. Apart from Darwin, Geddes drew on the ideas of Plato and anarchistic theories of co-operation, human development and self-help such as those of the Russian prince Peter Kropotkin. For Geddes human communities developed through biological mechanisms interacting with their environment.

Between 1914 and 1924 Geddes lived and worked in India mainly on town planning but also as an academic, holding the post of Professor of Sociology and Civics at Bombay University. His work took him far and wide; he designed housing and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, drew up plans for Tel Aviv, helped build settlements for Armenians and advised on land reform in Cyprus. Altogether during his productive lifetime Geddes worked on 50 separate cities.

He died in Montpelier on 17 April 1932, the same year in which he was knighted and twenty years after he first refused a to be knighted for democratic reasons. His death occurring at the end of a six year residence during which he set up the Scots College of Philosophy. In 1996, there was an unsuccessful attempt to set up a Patrick Geddes Institute for Environmental Studies in Perth with Millennium funding. There is a commemorative plaque to Patrick Geddes at Gean Tree Cottage, Mount Tabor Road, Kinnoull Hill. For it was at this cottage and the area of Kinnoull Hill that he spent much of his childhood after his family had moved there in 1857. Geddes’ father was a Gaelic speaker who had firstly served in the Black Watch and later the Perthshire Rifles.

The University Of Strathclyde holds a collection of the papers and work of Patrick Geddes that runs to some 45 m. His other achievements and work include the formation of the Environment Society (1884), getting Biology accepted within schools as a subject in itself, helping to found the Sociological Society of London (1903) and producing the Dublin City Survey (1914), publication of ‘Lyra Celtica’ an anthology of Celtic poetry as well as his own poems within the book ‘Ossian’, writing a biography of the experimental physicist Jagadis Bose and designing the lion’s enclosure at Edinburgh Zoo. The result of his work in Dublin was to persuade the City Corporation to build new houses at low rent for Jim Larkin’s striking miners. [2]

If anything were to define the life and work of Patrick Geddes it would be his belief and practical creation of better societies both rural and urban. Of societies where people together struggle against disease, poverty, ignorance, inequality and the ecological destruction of the environment.

‘Give men hope of better land, of enough food for their families, and you remove a main cause of bloodshed…For wherever at this moment two Easterners are quarrelling in their poverty, four or six or ten might soon be co-operating in wealth and peace.’

‘By creating we think.’

‘Together all the rays of culture into one.’

‘Civic Architecture and Town Planning are not merely the products of the council chamber or drawing offices, they are expressions of local history, of civic and national changes and contrasts of mind. Each generation, each group, must express its own life and thus make its contribution to its city in its own characteristic way.’

Patrick Geddes

1 Ruskin (1819-1900) foremost Victorian art critic and writer spent part of his childhood with his Aunt Jessie in Rose Terrace, Perth. His wife Euphemia (Effie) Gray was a local woman and they were married at Bowerswell House, Kinnoull Hill. Effie’s father George Gray who had purchased it from Ruskin’s family owned the house.

2 See note under section on James Connolly.