John Todd Morrison, physicist, was the son of James Morrison, a master shoemaker, and his wife Mary Todd. After attending school for seven years he entered George Watson's College, Edinburgh, for three years, before matriculating at the University of Edinburgh. He continued his studies there, won several bursaries and scholarships, and graduated as Master of Arts (MA, 1883) and five years later as Bachelor of Science (BSc, 1888). One of his lecturers at Edinburgh was William Thomson*, who later became professor of mathematics at Stellenbosch. Meanwhile Morrison had started his teaching career at the Heriot Watt College in 1886 and remained there until 1891. Two of his early papers dealt with the distribution of temperature in three Scotish lochs. Both were read before the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1886 and published in its Report for that year.
Early in 1892 Morrison came to the Cape Colony to take up an appointment as lecturer in natural philosophy (physics) and chemistry at Victoria College, Stellenbosch - one of the constituent colleges of the University of the Cape of Good Hope. That same year the university admitted him to the MA degree on the basis of his degrees from the University of Edinburgh. He subsequently became professor of physics at Victoria College (October 1893), professor of applied mathematics (January 1906), and again professor of physics (April 1923) until his retirement at the end of June 1934. During these years he did much to raise the standard of tuition in his subjects. From 1918 his post formed part of the University of Stellenbosch, successor to Victoria College. In 1903 he was an examiner in physics at the MA level for the University of the Cape of Good Hope and occasionally an examiner in mathematics, applied mathematics or physics for undergraduate and honours students during 1910-1916.
From December 1897 Morrison collaborated with Professor J.C. Beattie* of the South African College, Cape Town, on the first comprehensive magnetic survey of southern Africa and spent most of his vacations, and a year's leave in 1903, conducting field work. They measured the magnetic declination, inclination and field intensity at more than 400 stations all over southern Africa and at some stations repeated the observations to determine the secular variations of the magnetic elements. In a joint paper before the South African Philosophical Society, published in its Transactions in 1903 (Vol. 14, pp.1-27), they reviewed and interpreted earlier observations of the magnetic elements at the Cape from 1605 to 1900. The results of their own survey were published in London in 1909 under Beattie's name in a book entitled Report of a magnetic survey of South Africa. In 1909, both on leave for the year, they extended the survey to central Africa. They made observations from Kabwe (formerly Broken Hill) in Zambia, through north-western Zambia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and north-eastern Zambia to Mbala. From there Morrison travelled to Chinde on the east coast and up the coast by sea, landing at several places to take measurements. Their results were published in Land magnetic observations, 1905-1910 by L.A. Bauer of the Carnegie Institution in Washington (Publication No. 175, 1912).
Other publications by Morrison included papers on "Some periodical changes in the rainfall at the Royal Observatory, Cape of Good Hope, since 1841" (Report of the Meteorological Commission, Cape of Good Hope, 1900); "Elementary physical science: its place in the curriculum of first-class and high schools..." (Report of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science, 1908); "Problems in terrestrial physics that require the attention of South African physicists" (Ibid, 1917); "Note on a diagram showing the amount of available sunshine falling on a horizontal surface on any day of the year at a given place..." (Ibid, 1920); "The relationship between winter rainfall and barometric pressure, barometric tendency and wind direction at Cape Town" (Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa, 1937, as co-author with his daughter, Hildegard E. Morrison); and "Note on the maximum correlation coefficient between two series whose values have been determined at equal intervals" (Philosophical Magazine, 1937). He continued his research into the circulation of the atmosphere until a few days before his death.
Morrison was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and an associate member of the (British) Institution of Electrical Engineers. He became a member of the South African Philosophical Society in 1896 and in 1908 was elected a Fellow of its successor, the Royal Society of South Africa. In 1919 and in 1922 he served as a member of council of the latter society. As an early member of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science he delivered a paper on "The solar corona" at its first annual congress in 1903, but it was not published. He served on the associations's first council during 1903 and 1904 and was its president in 1918. He was a member of the council of the University of the Cape of Good Hope from 1897 to 1918, and of the University of Stellenbosch. After playing an important role in founding the Queen Victoria Memorial Hospital in Stellenbosch he served as chairman of its board. Morrison lane, running next to the hospital, was named after him. The University of Cape Town awarded him an honorary Doctor of Science (DSc) degree in 1929.
In 1901 the British explorer Captain Robert Scott touched at the Cape in the Discovery on his way to the Antarctic and Morrison helped to check his instruments. As a result Scott named a peak on the southern continent Mount Morrison. He was a man of unfailing courtesy and had an infectious enthusiasm for his work. His wide interest in the arts included a love of painting and the ability to play the cello. He was married to Jessie E. Ratheby of Edinburgh, with whom he had three sons. In 1910 he married Hildegarde van der Poel, with whom he had two daughters. A collection of his correspondence and publications is kept in the J.S. Gericke Library, University of Stellenbosch.
The John Todd Morrison Research Medal is presented annually to the best MSc student, alternately in physics and applied mathematics, at the University of Stellenbosch.