Remembering George Salmon, mathematician, theologian and provost of TCD

The outstanding mathematician switched his focus to higher matters and devoted his last 40 years to theology

George Salmon: In 1833, aged just 14 years, he entered Trinity College, where he was to spend his entire career.

George Salmon: In 1833, aged just 14 years, he entered Trinity College, where he was to spend his entire career.

 

As you pass through the main entrance of Trinity College, the iconic Campanile stands before you, flanked, in pleasing symmetry, by two statues. On the right, on a granite plinth, is the historian and essayist William Lecky. On the left, George Salmon (1819-1904) sits on a limestone platform. Salmon was a distinguished mathematician and theologian and provost of Trinity College.

For decades, the two scholars have gazed down upon multitudes of students crossing Front Square. The life-size statue of Salmon, carved from Galway marble by the celebrated Irish sculptor John Hughes, was erected in 1911. Next Wednesday will be the 200th anniversary of Salmon’s birth.

Salmon was born in Dublin. His father was a linen merchant from Cork and George grew up and went to school in that city. In 1833, aged just 14 years, he entered Trinity College, where he was to spend his entire career. He graduated in the year 1838 after an outstanding undergraduate performance. In 1841, he was elected to a fellowship. In 1858, Salmon was appointed Donegall lecturer in mathematics.

As a tutor, Salmon would lecture twice each day, advising, directing and examining his students. In addition to this heavy load, he produced 41 mathematical papers and four influential mathematical texts during the following 20 years or so. Salmon did research in algebra, matrices and group theory, in close collaboration with Arthur Cayley and Joseph Sylvester, the leading English mathematicians of the day.

Salmon is mostly remembered today for his four textbooks on mathematics. Their titles, in shortened form, were Conic Sections, Plane Curves, Modern Higher Algebra and Geometry of Three Dimensions. The books were commercially successful as standard textbooks for several decades, and they had great influence on education in mathematics. The book on conic sections has remained in use until relatively recently, and all texts have been reprinted numerous times and translated into many languages. They are still available in print-on-demand format.

Degrees in divinity

After about two decades of mathematics, Salmon, who was an ordained Church of Ireland priest, changed his focus of research to higher matters and devoted his last 40 years to theology. In 1859, he was awarded degrees in divinity and in 1866 he was appointed Regius Professor of Divinity. Salmon was a renowned scholar of the New Testament.

He wrote a book, The Infallibility of the Church, a criticism of papal infallibility. He also published five volumes of the sermons he had preached in the Chapel of Trinity College. It was often said his sermons were better read than listened to. Perhaps this was because he did not have a strong voice, but one is reminded of the description of Wagner’s music as “much better than it sounds”.

Salmon received many awards during his life. He was elected a member of the Royal Irish Academy in 1843 and a fellow of the Royal Society 20 years later. He was awarded the highest honours of both, the Cunningham Medal of the RIA in 1858 and the Copley Medal of the RS in 1889. He was also elected fellow of the British Academy in 1902. In addition, Salmon was an honorary member of several European national academies, and Oxford, Cambridge and Edinburgh honoured him with doctorates.

In 1888, Salmon was appointed provost of Trinity College and he remained in that office for the rest of his life. He was deeply conservative, strongly opposing the admittance of women to the college. He died in the Provost’s House in Trinity College in 1904, the very year in which the first women undergraduates were admitted to the college.

An evening course on recreational maths, Awesums: Marvels and Mysteries of Mathematics, is open for booking online at UCD (www.ucd.ie/lifelonglearning) or by phone (01-716 7123).

Peter Lynch is emeritus professor at UCD School of Mathematics & Statistics – He blogs at thatsmaths.com

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