The 1st Baron Playfair GCB PC FRS was born at Chunar, Bengal, the son of George Playfair (1782-1846), the Scottish Inspector General of Hospitals in that region. Playfair was named after his uncle, Sir Hugh Lyon Playfair, and was educated at the University of St Andrews, the Andersonian Institute in Glasgow, and the University of Edinburgh. After going to Calcutta at the end of 1837, he became private laboratory assistant to Thomas Graham at University College, London, and in 1839 went to work under Justus Liebig at the University of Giessen. After returning to Britain, Playfair became manager of a calico works in Primrose, near Clitheroe, and in 1843 was appointed Professor of Chemistry at the Royal Manchester Institution, where he was assisted by Robert Angus Smith. Two years later, he was made chemist to the Geological Survey, and subsequently became Professor in the new School of Mines. In 1848, he was elected to the Royal Society, and three years later was made Special Commissioner and a member of the executive committee of the Great Exhibition. Appointed a Companion of the Order of the Bath, Playfair also became Gentleman Usher to Prince Albert, and in 1853 was appointed Secretary of the Department of Science, in which capacity he advocated the use of poison gas against the Russians in the Crimean War. In 1855, he was a commissioner of the Exposition Universelle, and two years later became President of the Chemical Society, finally returning to Edinburgh University in 1858 as Professor of Chemistry there. In 1868, Playfair was elected Liberal Member of Parliament for the Universities of Edinburgh and St Andrews, being sworn of the Privy Council and made Postmaster General in Gladstone's government in 1873. The Liberals lost power in early 1874 but on their return to office in 1880, Playfair was appointed Chairman of Ways and Means and Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons, holding these posts until 1883, when he was created a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath. He was subsequently President of the British Association in 1885. In February 1886 he returned to the government as Vice-President of the Committee on Education under Gladstone, a post he held until the government fell in July of the same year. He was made a member of the Council of the Duchy of Cornwall in 1889.