Manuscripts from the personal library of John Ferguson, 1837-1916, bibliographer and Regius Professor of Chemistry, University of Glasgow, Scotland

Scope and Content

The main strengths of the collection lie in alchemy, chemistry and related topics such as books of secrets, with important offshoots into the occult sciences and witchcraft, Cabbalism, Rosicrucianism, Free Masonry and gypsy literature. The collection includes 104 incunabula and 317 manuscripts - almost all of the latter are of alchemical interest and several date back to the 15th century. Ferguson's own extensive bibliographical notes and papers accompany his alchemical and related books.

Ferguson's valuable collection of general literature was not included in the purchase and this section of his library was auctioned in Glasgow, 23-25 June 1920 (Morrison, Dick & McChlery) and London, 15-17 November 1920 (Sotheby, Wilkinson & Hodge).

Administrative / Biographical History

John Ferguson was born on 23 January 1837  in Alloa, Clackmannanshire, Scotland, son of William, a merchant. He was educated at the High School of Glasgow and at Glasgow University from 1855-1864 . His first studies at Glasgow University were in the Arts Faculty, receiving a BA in 1861  and an MA the following year. After this he continued his studies, finishing in the Medical Faculty, the only way he could then study Chemistry. He won a number of prizes at University including the Ewing Gold Medal for his essay'Historical Account of the Papacy as a temporal power in Europe', the Gartmore Gold Medal for'The Advantages & Disadvantages of Federal Government' and he twice won the Watt prize for essays entitled'On Cohesion' and'Electricity & Magnetism from the Middle of the Last Century'.

John Ferguson studied Natural Philosophy under Professor William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, and Chemistry with Professor Thomas Anderson. From finishing his studies in 1864 until 1868  when he was appointed University Assistant with charge of tutorial classes and laboratory supervision, he worked as private assistant to Professor Anderson. In 1869 , Professor Anderson was taken seriously ill and John Ferguson undertook the general running of the department until November 1870  when the Professor returned. It was during this time that the University moved from the High Street to Gilmorehill and it was down to Ferguson to plan the new Chemistry Laboratories. Anderson never fully recovered from his illness and when he died in 1874 , John Ferguson became his successor.

He wrote widely on Chemistry and particularly on the history of the subject when the History of Science was not widely published in scientific journals. He was often published in the Proceedings of the Royal Philosophical Society of Glasgow, the Society for which he was president of the Chemical Section and then full President from 1892-1895 .

The major work for which he will be remembered is . His interest in alchemy and the occult science lead him to collect a large number of books on the subject.

His nickname'Soda' is said to have derived from his personality -a little caustic. Besides holding the office of President of the Royal Philosophical Society of Glasgow, Professor Ferguson was a President of the Glasgow Archaeological Society 1892-1893 , a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1888  and of the Society of Antiquaries 1890 , the Chemical Society 1872  and the Institute of Chemistry in London 1878 . He was awarded an LLD by St Andrews University, Scotland, in 1887 . He belonged to several learned societies in Europe and was an honorary member of the Imperial Military Academy of Petrograd. Throughout his life, John'Soda' Ferguson had been connected with Glasgow University, his last position being as Honorary Curator of the Hunterian Library. He died on 2 November 1916 .


The arrangement of this material reflects the original order in which it was received

Access Information

private records deposited by the owners


Acquisition Information

Purchase : John Ferguson : December 1921 : ACCN 353

Other Finding Aids

Item level descriptions are available via the department's online manuscripts catalogue available at

For details of printed books from this collection see Glasgow University Library Catalogue

Catalogue of the Ferguson Collection of books mainly relating to alchemy, chemistry, witchcraft and gipsies in the University of Glasgow (Glasgow, 1943), 2 vols. Supplement (1955). An author catalogue with one important exception: pamphlets on witchcraft are all gathered together under that heading, with no cross references from authors or titles.

Manual file level list available at the National Registers of Archives in Edinburgh (NRA(S)) and London (NRA41097)

Alternative Form Available

No known copies

Archivist's Note

Compiled by David Powell, Hub Project Archivist, 6 March 2002

No alterations made to date

Conditions Governing Use

Applications for permission to quote should be sent to the University Archivist

Reproduction subject to usual conditions: educational use & condition of documents

Appraisal Information

This material has been appraised in line with standard GB 247 procedures

Custodial History

Held in the library of John Ferguson


None expected

Related Material

GB 248 DC 251 Correspondence and papers of John Ferguson (Glasgow University Archive Services)

For contact details of all repositories with a GB code, see the ARCHON repository search page at


, 2 volsCatalogue of the Ferguson Collection of books mainly relating to alchemy, chemistry, witchcraft and gipsies in the University of Glasgow (Glasgow, 1944)

David Weston, Paracelsus: a catalogue of works published 1529-1793 preserved in Glasgow University Library, with an appendix listing manuscripts containing items by or about Paracelsus (Glasgow, 1993)

Nigel Thorp, The glory of the page: medieval and renaissance illuminated manuscripts from Glasgow University Library (London, 1987)