James C Adamson studied theology at the University of Edinburgh, qualifying as Doctor of Divinity. However, he was an extremely versatile scholar and had an excellent knowledge of literature, languages, philosophy, mathematics and the natural sciences, and published several mathematical papers in the Edinburgh Philosophical Journal during 1825-1827. He was furthermore a man of unbounded energy and a voluminous speaker and writer. After being ordained as a minister in February 1827 he came to Cape Town in November of that year as the founder and first minister of the Scottish Church, later St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in South Africa. In 1829 he served on the committee selected to establish the South African College, which at first provided only secondary education but gradually developed into an institution for tertiary education and in 1918 became the University of Cape Town. Adamson was one of its most active professors for two decades and contributed vastly to its image and limited success, teaching mathematics (1829-1830), then physical science (from 1836), and later English and Classics (1841-1850). His most important textbook for students was A manual of instruction for the South African College. Literature. Part 1. The principles of grammar applied to the Enlish language (Cape Town, 1846, 272p). In 1841 he resigned from St. Andrew's and for the next nine years almost single handedly conducted both the administration and teaching of the struggling South African College, at times without receiving a salary. However, he was unable to convey his extensive knowledge in simple language, with the result that his lectures were beyond the comprehension of his students and the College's student numbers declined. In 1848 Langham Dale* joined the College as professor and the two, both dominant men, were soon at loggerheads. As a result Adamson resigned in 1850.
His contributions to South African science were many and varied, though more in the form of lecturing and support than research. When the South African Institution, the first local scientific society, was founded in Cape Town in 1829, Adamson was elected joint secretary. He continued to serve the South African Literary and Scientific Institution (so named from 1832) in this position until 1850, and in 1837-1838 also served on its Meteorological Committee. The papers he read before the Institution that were published in the South African Quarterly Journal, of which he was an editor, included a description of his registering mercury and alcohol thermometer (1831, Vol. 1(5), pp. 105-6), and remarks on the logic of geometry (1834, Vol. 2(4), pp. 353-366). In 1831 he donated fossil bones of "a large mammiferous animal" from the Karoo to the Institution's collection. The next year he delivered a series of 15 lectures, paid for by subscriptions, dealing with aspects of physics such as gravitation, electricity, heat, statics, and dynamics. In a public lecture in August 1839 on the law of storms he characterised storms as moving atmospheric whirlpools, and returned to the topic in a subsequent lecture in January 1840. His next lecture series, in November 1842 to January 1843, comprised 12 lectures on the structures and interactions of plants and animals, and elicited editorial support in the South African Commercial Advertiser. A final series of 11 lectures on the geology and natural history of the earth, of which the tenth included remarks on the geology of the Cape, was delivered during 1844 and again received a favourable reception in the press.
Adamson supported the Cape Association for Exploring Central Africa, which financed Andrew Smith's* expedition into the interior in 1834, and served on its Management Committee from 1833 to 1850. The government appointed him on various commissions, including the Commission of Inquiry on the Improvement of Table Bay in 1837, the report of which he wrote and which resulted in the building of the breakwater. In 1848 he petitioned the government to found a Botanic Institution which would perform botanical research, collect and distribute useful exotic plants, and serve as a place of instruction. The Government Gardens in Cape Town were to be used for this purpose, and the important collection of plants in the gardens of the recently deceased Baron von Ludwig* purchased to stock them. The proposal was received favourably and led to the establishment of the Cape Town Botanic Gardens in 1850, with Adamson as one of its first six commissioners.
After resigning from the South African College he returned to Britain. From 1853 to 1860 he lived in the United States, where he delivered a number of lectures to the American Geographic Society and other learned societies. Returning to Cape Town in 1860, he published a valuable article on the South African Literary and Scientific Institution in the Cape Monthly Magazine (Vol. 7, pp. 153-159), pointing out the contributions it had made to South African science. He was appointed as a member of the Meteorological Committee established by the Cape government in October of that year, which made the Cape Colony one of the first countries in the world to establish a national weather service. Despite the fact that the committee included several members with scientific training, including Thomas Maclear*, Charles Bell*, and William Mann*, Adamson served as "Curator of meteorological observations" for some time, with the responsibility of processing the observations received from the various observers. In 1862 he wrote the Committee's first report, which contained a valuable summary of earlier meteorological studies in the colony.
James Adamson was for several decades a leading figure in religious, educational, cultural, and scientific affairs at the Cape of Good Hope. He "waswithout doubt one of the most erudite and versatile men the Cape Colony ever knew" (Robinson, 1962, p. 100). In 1901 Dr James Cameron said of him: "The massive strenghth of his intellect and the vast range of his erudition were alike extraordinary. In literature, philosophy, and theology, in classical, oriental and modern languages, and in every department of physical science, his attainments were such as few ... have been able to equal." (Ritchie, 1918, p. 135-6).