James Joseph Sylvester


The "Times" of yesterday announces the death of Mr James Joseph Sylvester, F.R.S., hon. D.C.L., Savilian Professor of Geometry in the University of Oxford, in his eighty-third year. In him, it says, the scientific world of Europe has lost one of its foremost men. The region of pure mathematics in which he worked is so remote from popular study that only specialists can understand the great contributions made by him and his friend Professor Cayley, "the great twin-brethren of modern algebra," to human knowledge. Sylvester's influence was exercised partly through a series of memoirs in mathematical journals, partly by the living voice in lectures, when he developed from time to time new theories and ideas which became fruitful in his own and other minds, and gave an enormous stimulus to the study of his subject. His written work is to be found in some 300 pages, the earliest of which dates from 1839, while the latest is more than half a century older. Their range was thus described by Cayley in 1889:- "They relate chiefly to finite analysis, and cover by their subjects a large part of it: algebra, determinants, elimination, the theory of equations, partitions, tactic, the theory of forms, matrices, reciprocants, the Hamiltonian numbers etc.; analytical and pure geometry occupy a less prominent position, and mechanics, optics, and astronomy are not absent." Moving very much in the same field as Professor Cayley, he was strikingly different from him - he had not his method, nor his power of wide reading, and for want of this he often re-made mathematical discoveries. On the other hand he had more imaginative power. His work was done by fits and starts of sudden inspiration. His lectures, often off the subject had the unique interest of showing the workings of a master mind actually engaged in discovery and exhibiting the processes by which it moved.

John James Sylvester, the youngest son of Abraham Joseph Sylvester, was born in London September 3, 1814. From the Royal Institution, Liverpool, he went to St John's College, Cambridge, and was Second Wrangler in 1837. As a Jew he could not take his degree nor compete for the Smith's prizes, still less obtain a Fellowship. He entered at the Inner Temple, and was called to the Bar in 1850; but he mainly devoted himself to teaching. He was Professor of Natural Philosophy at University College, London, 1837-1844, then Professor of Mathematics at the University of Virginia. Returning to England he gave up mathematics for a time, and was on the point of taking up the profession of an accountant, when by Lord Brougham's influence he was made in 1855 Professor at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich. Fifteen years later he retired, but in 1877, on the foundation of Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, he migrated to America as the first Professor of Mathematics in the new University. As Professor and as editor of the American "Journal of Mathematics," he practically founded the study of higher mathematics in the United States. In 1883, on the death of Henry Smith, he was elected Savilian Professor of Pure Geometry in Oxford, and became a Fellow of New College, where he lived a loyal and devoted member of William of Wykeham's foundation. In Oxford he produced his theory of reciprocants, and by the force of his teaching and the foundation of a mathematical society he did much for his subject. On the failure of his eyesight and general health in 1893, he retired from active duty to London, where he spent most of his time at the Athenaeum Club. Throughout his life learned societies at home and abroad vied in doing him honour. A Fellow of the Royal Society as early as 1839, he received a Royal Medal in 1860, the Copley Medal in 1880, and the De Morgan Medal of the London Mathematical Society (of which he was the second president) in 1887. He was it Foreign Associate of the United States National Academy of Sciences, Foreign Member of the Royal Academy of Sciences, Göttingen, of the Royal Academy of Sciences of Naples, and of the Academy of Sciences of Boston, Corresponding Member of the Institute of France, of the Imperial Academy of Science of St Petersburg, of the Royal Academy of Science of Berlin, of the Lyncei of Rome, of the lstituto Lombardo, of the Société Philomathique, and Associate of the Royal Society of Belgium. He had honorary degrees from Oxford, Dublin, and Edinburgh, and was an Honorary Fellow of St John's College, Cambridge.

In 1890 he published "The Laws of Verse," and the subject always had great attractions for him. Original verse and translations by him appeared in the "Gentleman's Magazine," the "Athenaeum," the "Nature," and in privately-printed fly-sheets. He had a gift for language and a sense of rhythm, but though his verses had poetic quality he was not a poet; but with a characteristic simplicity he always regarded his poetical work as deserving to rank with his mathematical achievements. He was as anxious over the rhythm of a sonnet as over the construction of an important mathematical formula. Sylvester always retained the secret of perpetual youth. From the time when as a young man he was an enthusiastic pupil of Gounod to the day when at eighty-one be took to speculations in philology and to writing Latin epigrams, he showed a childlike and buoyant freshness of interest which younger men envied, while they smiled at his extravagance. Defects of temper sometimes obscured his real amiability of character, and injured his work as a teacher. But he has left in his own writings and in those which, directly or indirectly, are due to his inspiration a great and permanent influence on mathematical studies.

On Wednesday 17 March 1897 this obituary of James Joseph Sylvester appeared in The Scotsman