Kelland, Philip

(1808-1879), mathematician

by Ronald M. Birse

© Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved

Kelland, Philip (1808-1879), mathematician, was born in the parish of Dunster, Somerset, where his father, the Revd Philip Kelland (d. 1847), was curate. Though Kelland's father was an Oxford man he sent his son to Queens' College, Cambridge, where he graduated BA in 1834 as senior wrangler and first Smith's prizeman. After taking holy orders he was for three years a tutor in his college, graduating MA in 1837. A year later his reputation was already such that he was invited to apply for the vacant chair of mathematics at Edinburgh, in competition with Duncan Gregory, Edward Sang, and others. He was strongly supported by the professor of natural philosophy, James D. Forbes, who believed there was a need to appoint a mathematician from outside the very philosophical Scottish tradition represented by Gregory. The outcome was a narrow majority in favour of Kelland, who became the first Englishman with an entirely English education elected to a chair in the university. He knew that he was by no means unreservedly welcome in Edinburgh, but, as Davie points out, 'before many years had elapsed, [he] took very effective steps to undermine the local legend that Cambridge analysts like himself were poor hands at the philosophy of mathematics' (Davie, 123).

While at Cambridge Kelland had published Theory of Heat (1837) in which he dismissed Fourier's application of sine and cosine series (Fourier series) to the conduction of heat as mostly erroneous; in 1841, however, the seventeen-year-old William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) published his first scientific paper showing that Kelland's criticisms were unjustified. In the meantime the latter had published a successful textbook, The Elements of Algebra (1839), and from then on he devoted more of his time to teaching and educational reform than to mathematical research. He was very popular with his students, and it was said of him that his function was less to make discoveries than to methodize, adapt, and disseminate the discoveries of others. He thoroughly identified himself with the Scottish university system, and took an active part in the movement for reform which resulted in the appointment of an executive commission to implement the provisions of the Universities (Scotland) Act, which included the ultimate release of the University of Edinburgh from the control of the town council. Kelland was twice married; first to a Miss Pilkington of Dublin and second, on 30 April 1846, to Alexandrina Janetta Donaldson, only daughter of Captain Boswell RN of Wardie, Edinburgh.

On 6 December 1838 Kelland was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, and in 1839 a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, of which he was president from November 1878 to his death; he contributed numerous papers to its Transactions over forty-one years. When Forbes became incapacitated through illness, Kelland, with the assistance of Balfour Stewart, assumed the duties of the natural philosophy chair at intervals from 1852 until 1856. He also took much interest in the Life Association of Scotland, of which he was one of the founders, and conducted the septennial investigation of its affairs from the actuarial point of view. In this connection he made a tour in Canada and the United States in 1858. Occasionally he officiated in St James's and other episcopal churches in Edinburgh, but it was the opinion of his friends that preaching was one of the few accomplishments in which he did not excel. In physical science he wrote on the motion of waves in canals and on various questions of optics, but he mainly devoted his investigations to pure mathematics; one of his most important papers was his 'Memoir on the limits of our knowledge respecting the theory of parallels', in which he dealt with non-Euclidean geometry. Almost his last work, and that which is most worthy of his reputation as a mathematician, was the article 'Algebra' in the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1875).

Kelland was a kindly and congenial man, ever ready to help deserving students. His wide knowledge and the quickness of his perception made him an excellent conversationalist, and he was also a fine musician, playing the cello and the flute. He died at his home, Balmoral Cottage, Bridge of Allan, Stirlingshire, on 7 May 1879, from kidney disease. He was survived by his wife, three sons, and two daughters.


Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 10 (1878-80), 208-11, 321-9
The Scotsman (9 May 1879)
PRS, 29 (1879), vii-x
The Times (10 May 1879)
The Times (10 June 1879)
A. Grant, The story of the University of Edinburgh during its first three hundred years, 2 (1884), 304-5
G. E. Davie, 'The 1838 contest for the Edinburgh mathematical chair', The democratic intellect: Scotland and her universities in the nineteenth century (1961), 105-26
d. cert.
CCI (1879)

U. Edin. L., letters to David Ramsay Hay
U. St Andr. L., corresp. with James David Forbes

W. Hole, etching, NPG; repro. in W. B. Hole, Quasi Cursores: portraits of the high officers and professors of the University of Edinburgh at its tercentenary festival (1884)
J. W. Slater, pencil and watercolour drawing, Queens' College, Cambridge
T. C. Wageman, watercolour drawing, Trinity Cam.

Wealth at death  
£20,964 11s. 8d.: confirmation, 12 June 1879, CCI
£79 8s. 4d.--Scotland: eik additional estate, 4 July 1879, CCI

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