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Hometown honour

  • Principal Daniel Woolf speaks to a small gathering in Wallace Hall about the history of his predecessor William Leitch, the fifth principal of Queen's University.
    Principal Daniel Woolf speaks to a small gathering in Wallace Hall about the history of his predecessor William Leitch, the fifth principal of Queen's University.
  • Christopher Markwell, chairman of the Baird of Bute Society’s board of trustees, presents the Baird of Bute Innovation Award to Principal Daniel Woolf.
    Christopher Markwell, chairman of the Baird of Bute Society’s board of trustees, presents the Baird of Bute Innovation Award to Principal Daniel Woolf.
  • Christopher Markwell, chairman of the Baird of Bute Society’s board of trustees, and Principal Daniel Woolf stand beneath the portrait of Principal William Leitch in Wallace Hall.
    Christopher Markwell, chairman of the Baird of Bute Society’s board of trustees, and Principal Daniel Woolf stand beneath the portrait of Principal William Leitch in Wallace Hall.

In 2015 it was discovered that William Leitch, the fifth principal of Queen’s University (from 1859 till his death in office in 1864), was the first person to apply scientific principles to accurately describe the rocket as the best device for space travel.

Understandably, it was a significant finding not only for the university but for Leitch’s hometown, the Isle of Bute.

On Wednesday, Jan. 11, Principal Daniel Woolf accepted the Baird of Bute Innovation Award on behalf of his predecessor for “his ground-breaking contribution to space science.”

Christopher Markwell, chairman of the Baird of Bute Society’s board of trustees, traveled to Queen’s along with Robert Godwin, the space historian and author who made the discovery, to present the award, named after Andrew Blain Baird, an Isle of  Bute blacksmith who achieved the “first all-Scottish heavier-than-air powered flight” in 1910.

The innovation and an aviation awards are presented each year, as well as scholarships and programs, to help “inspire children to aspire,” Mr. Markwell explains.

Through his research, Mr. Godwin discovered that Principal Leitch was the first person to correctly apply modern scientific principles to spaceflight in his 1861 essay A Journey Through Space. A year later Leitch included the essay in his book God's Glory in the Heavens.

Principal Leitch was ahead of his time – more than 30 years ahead, Mr. Godwin explains.

While there was some initial doubt, Mr. Godwin has confirmed the finding with leading experts in the field.

“A year later we know now (Leitch) wasn’t guessing,” Mr. Godwin says. “He was a very bright person, a polymath – geology, botany, astronomy, mathematics, all the natural philosophies of the time. He was enlightened. He stood up for women’s rights, equal rights. He was anti-slavery. He was extraordinary.”

Principal Woolf, the 20th principal of Queen’s, said the university was proud to accept the award.

“It is a privilege for Queen’s to receive Principal Leitch’s award into its archives, where it will enable the community to learn more about his contributions to the foundations of our university, to science, and to education in general,” he says “Although he has no surviving family members that can be traced, Principal Leitch is still held in high esteem by his Queen’s family, who remain proud of their former leader.”

For more information on Principal Leitch or to purchase Mr. Godwin’s book William Leitch Presbyterian Scientist and the Concept of Rocket Spaceflight 1854-64 visit the website of CGS Publishing.