William Sanders: A Life of Science and Satire

Satire in Scotland

Scientific disputes were not uncommon in the seventeenth century. However, some basic civilities had to be observed. When in 1667 James Gregory (c. 1638–1675), who held the first Regius Chair of Mathematics at the University of St Andrews, started a fight with the famous polymath Christiaan Huygens (1629–1695), the Royal Society had to intervene. The debate began as a discussion in scientific journals. It only erupted when Gregory published his book, the Exercitationes Geometricae (London, 1668), personally attacking Huygens. Henry Oldenburg (1619–1677) asked Gregory’s friend Sir Robert Moray (c. 1608–1673) to mediate on behalf of the Royal Society, trying to keep the dispute from the public. In February 1669, Moray wrote to Huygens, Gregory’s senior, asking him to settle the dispute in a gentlemanly manner.

A prime example of how not to settle a dispute was by publishing a satirical pamphlet, slandering the reputation of your enemies. The Great and New Art of Weighing Vanity (1672) was co-written by Gregory and a colleague at St Andrews, William Sanders (c. 1640–1705), who was said to be ‘very knowing in the mathematics’. The pamphlet is both satire and treatise. But for the most part, it is a literary ridiculing of George Sinclair (c. 1630–1696), another Scottish scientist, whose work has recently been re-evaluated. In the preface, Sanders calls Sinclair an ‘Arrogant pretender to Knowledge’ and evokes the scene of a literary duel, using biblical imagery:

‘I have accepted my Adversaries Challenge… I have examined all his Books: I have weighed them in the ballance of reason, and have found them so light, that they deserve no better name than Vanity.’

The Great and New Art of Weighing Vanity. St Andrews University Library, TypBG.C72RG.

Mathematics at St Andrews

The satire could be seen as an example of flyting, an old Scottish literary tradition. Nonetheless, it is a serious piece of scholarship, the appendix to the work being valued by Newton. At St Andrews, Sanders was an ardent supporter of Gregory, teaching the new natural philosophy, and becoming Gregory’s successor to the Chair of Mathematics in 1675. He was on a commission that Gregory initiated to acquire scientific instruments for the new observatory in 1673 to improve the ‘naturall philosophy and the Mathematicall sciences’ at the university, as the commission stated. However, even though Sanders published a serious mathematical work, the Elementa geometriae (1686), he left the university in 1688 to become a schoolmaster in Dundee.

The graduation theses over which Sanders presided in 1674 give a bit more context to this elusive figure of science. The Theses philosophicae (1674) only survive in five copies. Merely one copy outside of Scotland exists, at the British Library in London. The theses presented for twenty candidates of St Leonard’s College at the University of St Andrews (it was only in 1747 that St Leonard’s College and St Salvator’s College merged into United College) reveal the ‘new scientific ideas’ that Gregory and Newton propagated, as Ronald Cant states in his history of the university. The theses quote from the Philosophical Transactions, and the contemporary mathematician John Wallis (1616–1703) in Oxford is referenced multiple times. The rationalist outlook of Descartes is notable, and the Discours de la méthode (1637) is quoted verbatim. As early as 1674, then, the new scientific ideas had been taught by Sanders at the University of St Andrews.

Reading Modern Optics

A more intimate aspect of Sanders’ support for Gregory can be gained from a surviving copy of the former’s library. His signature appears in a copy of Gregory’s Optica promota (1664), which he may have acquired soon after its publication, because the year 1664 is recorded on the verso of the title page. The book is annotated by an early modern hand, often elaborating on diagrams, and adding additional references and commentary in Latin. The book is framed with blank leaves at the beginning and at the end, which contain additional notes. But who added these marginal notes? It is possible that these are the notes taken by Sanders while reading. It has been suggested that they are in Gregory’s hand, and that he annotated the copy to prepare a second edition of the book. A comparison of individual letterforms with a note written by Sanders indicates that these notes were not taken by Sanders.

Optica promota. St Andrews University Library QC383.G8O6, Copy 2.

However, even if Sanders lent his copy of the Optica promota to Gregory for marking, this would point to a rather close relationship between the two men. Both were educated at Marischal College in Aberdeen: Gregory graduated MA in 1657 and Sanders MA in 1659. Sanders bought the Optica promota in 1664, four years before Gregory came to St Andrews. Sanders himself was presented as a Regent of St Leonard’s College by Archbishop Sharp in 1671. Would it be possible that Sanders followed his friend to St Andrews? Speculation is spurred on even further by the printing history of Sanders’ works: Both the Great and New Art of Weighing Vanity and the Theses philosophicae (1674) were printed in Glasgow by his brother Robert Sanders. Sanders could have acted as an intermediary for a new edition of the Optica promota, which was originally published in London – but the new edition never materialised.

As a writer, teacher and reader, Sanders’ life was closely linked to Gregory’s. Forgotten by history, he was instrumental for promoting natural history in Scotland. More than anything, however, he was a colourful and at times bawdy character of the Restoration period, giving a glimpse into the social customs of early modern science.


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Philippe Schmid was educated at Basel and Munich, he held a Digital Humanities Fellowship at the Herzog August Library in Wolfenbüttel in 2017/18. Currently, he is a PhD candidate in Modern History at the University of St Andrews. His thesis is supervised by Professor Andrew Pettegree and Dr Graeme Kemp and studies book collecting culture in urban communities in early modern Germany. His research is funded by the SGSAH with an AHRC Doctoral Training Partnership Studentship.


Cant, Ronald Gordon, The University of St Andrews. A Short History (Scottish Academic Press: Edinburgh & London, 1970).

Craik, Alex D. D., ‘The hydrostatical works of George Sinclair (c.1630–1696): their neglect and criticism’, Notes and Records, 72 (2018), pp. 239–273.

Rawson, Helen C., ‘James Gregory, the University Observatory

and the early acquisition of scientific instruments at the University of St Andrews’, Notes and Records, 69 (2015), pp. 109–133.

Turnbull, Herbert Westren (ed.), James Gregory Tercentenary Memorial Volume (G. Bell & Sons LTD: London, 1939).

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