A Brief Biography of James Clerk Maxwell

By Tim Lambert

His Early Life

James Clerk Maxwell was one of the great scientists of the 19th century. James was born on 13 June 1831 at 14 India Street, Edinburgh. His father John Clerk Maxwell was a wealthy landowner. His mother was Frances Maxwell. James had a sister but she died in infancy. In 1841 old James Clerk Maxwell went to Edinburgh Academy. The other pupils called him ‘dafty’ because he was a bit eccentric.

However, James Maxwell was, of course, a very bright child and he loved geometry. In 1847 James Maxwell went to Edinburgh University where he studied mathematics, logic and metaphysics, and natural philosophy (which we call science).

In 1850 James Maxwell went to Cambridge University. He graduated in mathematics in 1854. In 1856 Maxwell became a professor of natural philosophy at Marischal College in Aberdeen. In 1858 he married a woman named Katherine Mary Dewar. the couple did not have children. James Maxwell was also a deeply religious man and he was an elder of the Church of Scotland. In 1860 James was made redundant but he obtained a post at Kings College London.

The Great Scientist

Meanwhile, Maxwell studied Saturn’s rings. James Maxwell came to the conclusion that the rings were made up of a colossal number of tiny solid objects orbiting the planet. He wrote On the Stability of Saturn’s Rings in 1859. James Maxwell then studied the viscosity of gases (viscosity if the measure of a fluid’s resistance to flow).


In 1865 James Maxwell left London and moved to Glenair in Scotland where he continued to research physics. Then in 1871, Maxwell became a professor of experimental physics at Cambridge University. In 1873 James Maxwell published his great work A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism. He showed that light is an electromagnetic wave. 

Unfortunately, Maxwell died of cancer in Cambridge on 5 November 1879. He was only 48. James Clerk Maxwell was buried in Kirkcudbrightshire in Scotland.