William Sanders

Quick Info

about 1640
Glasgow, Scotland
probably Perth, Scotland

William Sanders was the second Regius Chair of Mathematics at the University of St Andrews in St Andrews, Scotland. He began as a regent at the university in 1671, became Chair of Philosophy in 1672, and was appointed Regius Chair in 1674. He published three books: The Great and New Art of Weighing Vanity, Theses Philosophicae, and Elementa Geometriae.


William Sanders was born about 1640 and died in 1705 [36]. According to baptismal records, he was probably born in 1634 in Glasgow, Lanarkshire, Scotland and his parents are listed as James Sanderis and Issobell Straquhen (or Straquhene) for the 17 November 1635 baptism. He was educated at Marischal College at Aberdeen and graduated in 1659. This date of graduation provides additional evidence that Sanders was born around 1640. University students (all male) began their studies around the age of 14 and studies lasted 4 years, making Sanders the age of 18 or 19 in 1659, which would have been the standard age for completing university studies. If he was baptized in 1634, this would have made him a university student more advanced in age than most students who began their university studies as teenagers. If born in 1634, he would have been 25 years old in 1659 when he graduated from Marischal College.

After graduating from Marischal, Sanders became "Under Master" in the Grammar School of Aberdeen [36]. Moving from Aberdeen to St Andrews, Sanders began as a regent (i.e. instructor) at St Andrews in 1671. He was appointed to the Chair of Philosophy in 1672, and beginning in 1674, he was appointed the second Regius Chair in Mathematics, succeeding the prominent mathematician and astronomer, James Gregory, when he left St Andrews for the University of Edinburgh.

After Sanders became a regent at St Andrews in 1671, he married Anna Concordia Strachan (1661-1735) and they had nine children. Anna Concordia Strachan was the daughter of Alexander Straquhan and Jeane Barrone. Alexander Straquhan was Minister of Birse parish and graduated from King's College in Aberdeen in 1651 [37]. Other spellings of Strachan are Straqne, Straquhan, Straquhan, Straquhane, Straquhane, Straquhine, and Straquhine. It was common for various spellings of the same surname to be used in seventeenth century Scotland. These various spellings look quite close to the spelling of the surname of Issobell Straquhen, William's mother. It is quite possible that William Sanders and Anna Concordia Strachan were relatives. Alexander Straquhan married Jeane Barrone in 1658 in Aberdeen and Issobell Straquhene married James Sanders in 1613 in Aberdeen.

William and Anna Concordia's first child was born in 1678, several years into his position as Regius Chair. Perhaps this position had given him a more desirable income and he was able to support a family. William and Anna Concordia Strachan had four sons and five daughters born between 1678 and 1695: James Sanders born in 1678 in St Andrews; Johne Sanders born in 1679 in St Andrews; Amilia Sanders born in 1681 in St Andrews; Isobell Sanders born in 1683 in St Andrews; Anna Sanders born in 1686 in St Andrews; Barbra Sanders born in 1687 in St Andrews; Wm. Sanders born in 1689 in Dundee; Bessie Sanders born in 1692 in Perth; and Robert Sanders born in 1695 in Perth.

Two years after the publication of Elementa Geometriae, in 1688, Sanders resigned as Regius Chair and became a schoolmaster in Dundee. In 1690 Sanders moved on to become Headmaster at Perth Grammar School, where he remained until he retired in 1704 [1].

Sanders was exposed to mathematical and scientific topics while at Marischal, as is known from the theses the students produced in 1659. At the time that Sanders was at Marischal College, graduation was by public defence of a thesis. The theses were usually prepared by the regent. However, the 1659 graduation theses of George Meldrum, a regent at Marischal, were written by the students, though Meldrum stated in the introduction that the theses accurately represented his own views. Whether on account of what was taught at Marischal by Meldrum and others, or on account of the students' role in the production of the theses [30]:-
... the theses shewed no great originality: the heavens [were] incorruptible; Copernicus [was] rejected; the question of solid spheres [was] left open but a fluid heaven [was] regarded as more probable.
These were not scientifically advanced concepts, but nonetheless the theses provide evidence of astronomy, natural philosophy, and mathematics as topics of Sanders' studies at Marischal.

Some of what is known about Sanders is because of his association with James Gregory, who had been the Regius Chair of Mathematics for three years when Sanders arrived in 1671. The Regius Chair position had been created for James Gregory, who took up the post in 1668. Robert Moray, a graduate of St Andrews and member of the Royal Society, along with Archbishop Sharp of St Andrews persuaded King Charles II to found the professorship [29]. When Sanders was Chair of Philosophy, he collaborated with James Gregory on The Great and New Art of Weighing Vanity, which was published in Glasgow in 1672 by Robert Sanders, who was William's brother and a printer in Glasgow [16] [8]. The book was a satire mocking the hydrostatical works of George Sinclair, another Scottish scientist, affiliated at different points in time with Glasgow and Edinburgh [9]. Sanders and Gregory published The Great and New Art of Weighing Vanity with the pseudonym M. Patrick Mathers. The Scottish term for this sort of satirical literary work is flyte [13].

James Gregory also attended Marischal College and graduated in 1657, and the two men may have met as students, though this is not known for certain. Even before arriving in St Andrews, Sanders had a copy of Gregory's Optica Promota, which indicates an interest in optics or a familiarity with Gregory [33]. A signature of William Sanders dated 1664, on the verso of the title page of a copy of Optica Promota which is now in St Andrews Special Collections, is evidence of Sanders' acquisition of a copy of Gregory's book prior to 1671.

In addition to collaborating on The Great and New Art of Weighing Vanity, Sanders was involved in Gregory's efforts to build an observatory. Sanders himself served as clerk and wrote the university commission for the founding of the observatory in St Andrews and the purchase of instruments to equip the observatory. The commission was dated the 10th of June 1673 and the final sentence of the commission reads as follows [26]:-
As Witness these presents, written by William sanders, one of our number, Clerk for the time, and subscrived with our hands in the University hall, on the Tenth day of June sixteen hundred and seventy-three years.
The commission was signed by the Rector, the Provost of St Mary's College, the Provost of the Old College, the Principal of St Leonard's College, and eight others.

In 1674, the year in which Sanders became Regius Chair, his Theses Philosophicae was published in Glasgow by his brother (all three of Sanders' publications were printed by his brother Robert in Glasgow) [32] [8]. Theses Philosophicae were the graduation theses he wrote as regent for his students to argue and defend publicly prior to their graduation [35]. Sanders' Theses Philosophicae were presented for twenty candidates of St Leonard's College at the University of St Andrews in 1674. The theses contained topics that Gregory and Sanders were teaching at the time, including many astronomical topics, which, according to [30]:-
... must have derived from Gregory since they reveal a familiarity with contemporary astronomy and an accuracy of exposition which are quite outstanding.
The heliocentric system was accepted, and Sanders was the first to include Kepler's laws of planetary motion; Kepler's planetary harmonies were discussed, Cassini's determinations of the periods of axial rotation of Jupiter and Mars were quoted, and Cassini's data for the three known satellites of Saturn were quoted. This is a complete change from his education under Meldrum at Marischal, which reinforces the likelihood that Gregory exerted a great deal of influence on Sanders and his theses. Theories of light and color, as espoused by Newton, had appeared in 1672 and were included in the theses. As described in [30]:-
Sanders was whole-heartedly Cartesian, with an evident contempt for the older scholastic methods of argument and exposition.
The theses quoted from The Philosophical Transactions; the mathematician, John Wallis, of Oxford was referenced several times; and Descartes' Discours de la méthode (1637) was quoted in full [33].

Having served as a regent, Chair of Philosophy, and Regius Chair of Mathematics, Sanders was well established at the University of St Andrews. He had published three books, participated in Gregory's efforts to build an observatory, and acquired books and The Philosophical Transactions for the library. But there may have been tensions with the university and Sanders resigned as Regius Chair in 1688.

It is possible Sanders' relationship with the university deteriorated in the same way that Gregory's had. Antoni Malet [18] says that "the exact reasons for [Gregory's] departure from St Andrews are not known." However a letter from Sanders states that Gregory and Sanders were criticised by the university for an incident involving professors, students, principals of the university, and the town council. Malet cited a 1697 letter from Sanders (then at Perth) to the Provost of St Salvator College at St Andrews:-
As for the injure [sic] done by the Baxters to the deceist [sic] Mr Gregory and me, when the late Earl of Roxburgh was my pupil [sic] and scholar, I gave a full account of it to Mr Scrimizeour, and Dr Skeen knows it as well as I, and better than I how it ended [;] for 24 or 48 houres [sic] after Mr Gregory and I instrumented P. Lentron, in the university's name for satisfaction to us injured, we turned it over upon Dr Comry then Rector, with whom and other Mrs in the university the town compounded for an insufficient satisfaction, far below that which we told the university we would demand and they approved.
Sanders and Gregory considered the university rector's decision to be " 'mock satisfaction' and did not abide by it", and the two men received a penalty [18]. Gregory's salary was kept from him, and instead of acquiescing, he moved to become the Mathematics Chair at Edinburgh.

It is possible that Sanders, like Gregory, became disenchanted with St Andrews on account of salary. There is evidence for a debt owed to William Sanders for his time at St Andrews in a court filing by his widow, Anna Concordia Strachan, dated 2 June 1735 [38]. There had also been a suspension of Sanders in 1675 for conduct at a Rectorial election, which provides evidence that there were ongoing strains between Sanders and the university [42].

An additional factor contributing to Sanders' 1688 departure may have been the political and religious changes occurring at the time. 1688 was a time of religious and political turmoil in Scotland, immediately prior to the "Glorious Revolution", the overthrow of James II and VII by Mary (daughter of James II) and her husband William of Orange [40].

In seventeenth century Scotland, university appointments were influenced by politics and religion. Universities operated under the inspection of government commissioners whose visitations could affect who taught and what was taught at the universities. At times the Presbyterians were not in favour at universities and at times the Episcopalians were not in favour. The Glorious Revolution also saw a division in loyalty to Mary and William and to James II and VII. In 1690, a "general witch hunt" at the universities occurred. The Parliamentary Commissioners (i.e., visitation commissioners) were "to search ... dictates for evidence of insufficiency and to ensure their loyalty to the present government." At St Andrews, "of the eight regents belonging to the two colleges only one retained his position after the visitation [35]." Sanders may have anticipated the visitation and ensuing changes and thus departed.

As stated in [28]:-
It is unclear why Sanders left St Andrews and it is equally unclear why James Fenton should have been appointed to the Chair in 1689. Fenton is thought to have been a graduate of St Andrews but failed to bring distinction since he appears to have been sacked in 1690 and expelled from the University one year after being appointed. Whether there were then legal problems in filling the Regius Chair is unknown, but it remained unfilled until 1707 after Fenton's death.

References (show)

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  2. H G Aldis, A List of Books Printed in Scotland Before 1700: Including Those Printed Furth of the Realm for Scottish Booksellers, with Brief Notes on the Printers and Stationers (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Bibliographical Society, 1904)
  3. P J Anderson,  Aberdeen Grammar School Masters and Under Masters, 1602-1853 , Scottish Notes and Queries, 11 (3) (1897), 38-41
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  8. W J Couper, Robert Sanders the Elder (Glasgow: James Maclehose and Sons printed for the Glasgow Bibliographical Society, 1914)
  9. A D D Craik,  The Hydrostatical Works of George Sinclair (c. 1630-1696): Their Neglect and Criticism , Notes and Records: The Royal Society Journal of the History of Science 72 (3) (2018), 239-273
  10. A D D Craik, D Spittle,  The Hydrostatical Works of George Sinclair (c. 1630-1696): An Addendum , Notes and Records: The Royal Society Journal of the History of Science 73 (1) (2019), 125-130
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  13. Dictionaries of the Scots Language
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  16. J Gregory, W Sanders, The Great and New Art of Weighing Vanity: or, A discovery of the ignorance and arrogance of the great and new artist, in his pseudo-philosophical writings (Glasgow: Robert Sanders, 1672)
  17. T Harris, Revolution: The Great Crisis of the British Monarchy, 1685- 1720 (London: Penguin, 2007)
  18. A Malet,  Studies on James Gregorie (1638-1675) , (doctoral thesis, Princeton, 1989)
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  23. "Regius Chair in Maths". 13 February 2018.
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  27. E F Robertson, J J O'Connor,  "John Collins", MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive
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  29. E F Robertson, J J O'Connor, "St Andrews professors", MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive
  30. J L Russell,  Cosmological Teaching in the Seventeenth-Century Scottish Universities, Part 2, Journal for the History of Astronomy 5 (3) (1974), 145-154
  31. W Sanders, Elementa Geometriae (Glasgow: Robert Sanders, 1686)
  32. W Sanders, Theses Philosophicae (Glasgow: Robert Sanders, 1674)
  33. P Schmid, 'William Sanders: A Life of Science and Satire' [n.d.]
  34. Scottish Printing Archival Trust, A Reputation for Excellence, Volume 2: Glasgow (1994)
  35. C M Shepherd,  Philosophy and Science in the Arts Curriculum of the Scottish Universities in the 17th Century (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Edinburgh, 1974)
  36. R N Smart, Alphabetical Register of the Students, Graduates, and Officials of the University of St. Andrews 1579-1747 (St. Andrews: University of St. Andrews Library, 2012)
  37. 'Strachan, Alexander Minister of Birse parish'
  38. A C Strachan, petition of Anna Concordia Strachan (2 June 1735), National
  39. H W Turnbull, James Gregory Tercentenary Memorial Volume (London: G. Bell and Sons, 1939)
  40. E Vallance, The Glorious Revolution 1688: Britain's Fight for Liberty (London: Little, Brown, 2006)
  41. Annotation in The Philosophical Transactions. Shelfmark: rper Q41.L6T8, Vol. 1-3 (1665 1668). Permalink:
  42. Manuscript/Muniment ID UYUC110/Z/1/9 Suspension of Mr William Sanders regent in St Leonard's College for conduct at Rectorial election, 29 October 1675, with note by Sanders.

Cross-references (show)

Written by Meredith Houlton, University of St Andrews
Last Update June 2023