Doris Mary Cannell

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19 July 1913
Liverpool, England
18 April 2000
Nottingham, England

Mary Cannell was an English mathematician and historian who worked extensively on George Green.


Mary Cannell was the daughter of the post office clerk Robert James Brownburgh Cannell (1882-1961) and Mary Singleton (1883-1967). Robert Cannell (born 24 November 1882) and Mary Singleton (born 1 January 1883) were married on 10 August 1911 at the Parish Church, St Johns Bootle, Lancashire. Bootle is a town on the west coast of England just north of Liverpool. Mary, the mother of the subject of this biography, was the oldest child of the tram owner William Singleton and his wife Martha. Her occupation was recorded as "pupil school teacher" in the 1901 census and, a few months before her marriage, as "teacher assistant" working for the Bootle Education Committee in the 1911 census. Robert and Mary Cannell lived at 35 Merton Road, Bootle, Liverpool and they had two children, Mary Cannell, the subject of this biography, and Robert Leslie Cannell, born 6 October 1920, who became an engineer.

Mary was born a year before World War I broke out. Her father served in the Royal Signal School of the Royal Engineers during the war. She was brought up in Liverpool where, after winning a scholarship, she attended Merchant Taylors' Girls School in Great Crosby, about 5 km north of Bootle. This independent school, opened in 1888, had around 300 pupils when she was studying there. It had a good reputation for academic success. On 14 March 1923 she was confirmed by the Bishop of Liverpool at St Faith's Church, Great Crosby. Many pupils from Merchant Taylors' Girls School were confirmed into the Church of England at this Church. After completing her studies at this school she entered the University of Liverpool to study French. As a second subject she studied history.

After completing her first degree, Cannell studied for a postgraduate diploma in education so that she might enter the teaching profession. Indeed she did became a school teacher and taught French. During a spell in France, she taught English.

During World War II Cannell undertook war work lecturing to troops. It was to prompt a change in her career for she then moved into higher education. The rest of her career was spent in training teachers at the Teacher Training College in Worcester and she progressed to high positions in this area. In 1960 she was appointed as Deputy Principal of Nottingham College of Education. She took on the role of overseeing the amalgamation of the College with Trent Polytechnic in 1974. The combined educational establishment has now become Nottingham Trent University.

There is no hint in the biographical details which we have just given as to why Mary Cannell might figure in an archive of mathematicians. Indeed it was the work which she undertook after she retired which earns her a place in this archive as a highly respected historian of mathematics.

Her work stemmed from the fact that George Green had worked as a miller near Nottingham. Green was a mathematician who was well known to almost all students of mathematics around the world, yet little was known of his life. John Fauvel writes in [5]:-
... widespread knowledge of Green himself dates only from the 1970s when Cannell and other Nottingham colleagues worked to restore his windmill and his memory.
When I [EFR] first visited Green's windmill in Nottingham the booklet which I purchased was George Green: Miller and Mathematician, 1793-1841 written by Mary Cannell published by the City of Nottingham Arts Department in 1988. She produced a major biography of Green George Green: Mathematician and Physicist 1793-1841: The Background to His Life and Work in 1993. Lawrie Challis writes in the Foreword of the book [3]:-
I first met Mary Cannell in 1977, soon after the start of a campaign to restore Green's Mill. She had recently retired as Acting Principal of Nottingham College of Education, then one of the largest Colleges of Education in England, and I was very grateful when she agreed to become Honorary Secretary of the George Green Memorial Fund. At that stage I had thought only of harnessing to our cause her very considerable energy, determination and organisational ability; I had not dreamed that she would also spend much of the next fifteen years unravelling Green's story. The work has taken her around the country talking to Green's descendants, many times to Cambridge, particularly Caius and Queens' colleges, to Edinburgh and Manchester and even to Melbourne, Australia, to talk to J J Cross, an authority on Green's period in the history of mathematics. She has shared her enthusiasm with many; she is a vivid lecturer and has given well over fifty lectures on Green. Her book will allow this enthusiasm to reach a much wider audience, and we are greatly in her debt. Her claim that she has worked more as editor than as prime researcher is far too modest. She has illuminated our picture of Green in many ways, and one that I find particularly interesting is her identification of Toplis as the Nottingham mathematician most likely to have guided Green's education after his eighteen months at school. I have found only one omission in the book, and that is reference to the vital role she herself played in the restoration of Green's Mill and the organisation of his bicentenary celebration. Through this work on Green, Mary Cannell has made many friends in the local and scientific communities, and I am delighted to have this opportunity of thanking her on their behalf and mine for her work, and for this intriguing book.
For more information about this book, including extracts from the Prefaces and reviews of the 1993 and 2001 editions, see THIS LINK.

In addition she wrote research articles on George Green's life and work bringing to the world of mathematics an understanding of Green's remarkable life. In collaboration with N J Lord, she wrote George Green, mathematician and physicist 1793-1841 published in the Mathematical Gazette in 1993. It has the following Abstract:-
These past two years have seen the bicentenaries of Michael Faraday, Charles Babbage and John Frederick Herschel. A fourth contemporary, who deserves to rank with these, is George Green, the bicentenary of whose birth will be marked by the dedication of a plaque in Westminster Abbey. His memorial will be in proximity to those commemorating Newton, Kelvin, Faraday and Clerk Maxwell. Those to the Herschels (William Herschel and John Herschel) and Stokes are close by. Green's memorial designates him "Mathematician and Physicist". Most mathematicians will know of Green's theorem and Green's functions; physicists find his papers seminal to the study of, for example, solid state physics and elasticity and, since the mid-twentieth century, Green's functions have become an indispensable technique for those working in nuclear physics.
The single author work by Cannell, George Green: an enigmatic mathematician, appeared in the American Mathematical Monthly in 1999. It begins:-
The mathematics developed by George Green has been widely applied in modern physics and quantum electrodynamics yet his life has remained something of a mystery. There is no reference to him in the main volumes of the Dictionary of Scientific Biography: he is belatedly and briefly included in the Supplement of 1976. The bicentenary celebrations of his birth in 1993 focused increasing attention on the man who gave the world Green's functions.

This 'Monthly' has already published an authoritative account of Green's first and seminal publication, 'An Essay on the Application of Mathematical Analysis to the Theories of Electricity and Magnetism', which examined in some detail his use and development of mathematical sources. What is presented here is a short survey of Green's life and an examination of the circumstances and the social environment in which he lived. The great problem is the lack of material concerning Green. His output was small; ten papers including the 'Essay', written in the space of eleven years, amounting to less than 250 pages of print. There are no manuscripts, no working papers, no diaries, no memorabilia. There are a dozen letters to his patron, but no replies. There is no portrait or photograph. There was no established family house for his common-law wife, Jane Smith, and their seven children, and when the last, Clara, died in 1919, the family was thought to be extinct.

The few official facts of Green's life were established and published by H G Green (no relation). His paper included two valuable letters written in 1845 by Green's cousin and brother-in-law, William Tomlin, and Edward Bromhead, his patron. In the 1970s Green's letters to Bromhead came to light - the only information extant in Green's own hand, the only testimony to his mathematical thought and the only revelation of his personality. Green died at the age of forty-seven, just at the time when his work was about to be recognised: in consequence he established no reputation in his lifetime.
John Fauvel writes in [5]:-
[Mary Cannell] charmed audiences on several continents, promoting interest in Green and early 19th -century mathematical physics, in the clear tones and pure vowels of pre-war English, somewhere between Miss Marple and Dame Peggy Ashcroft.
Mary's pre-war studies into French culture lent insight into the mathematical sources used by Green, and her interest in English social history enabled her to appreciate the unrewarding and frustrating position in which he lived - that of a working miller and mathematical genius, struggling to find a voice in a period of social privilege and rigid class structure.

Mary Cannell was working on projects of one sort or another - the Green website, the revised edition of the biography, research papers, the catalogue in the university of Nottingham library - right to the end, in days filled with her characteristic energy and enthusiasm.
She received numerous invitations to give lectures [4]:-
Mary gave well over 50 lectures on Green to local societies and wrote an illustrated booklet that has so far sold over 5000 copies. The interest this engendered and her realisation that there was much to be done to place Green's life in its context within English social history at a time of rigid class divisions led her to begin work on the first edition of the biography. Her research was extensive and earned her great respect as an historian of mathematics. She was invited to lecture on Green at a number of Universities in Britain, Canada and the United States and her splendid lecture at the Royal Society during the Bicentenary meeting will be remembered for many years.
For many years Cannell was Secretary of the George Green Memorial Fund. They worked with appeals and other methods to raise the money to restore Green's Mill in Sneinton during the 1970s and 1980s. The George Green Memorial Fund was also involved in major celebrations in 1993 to commemorate the bicentenary of Green's birth, culminating in the dedication of a memorial plaque to Green in Westminster Abbey. Lawrie Challis writes [4]:-
The George Green Memorial Fund had been set up, a year or two before Mary retired, with the aim of restoring his ruined windmill, and Mary became an enthusiastic member of a team that worked closely with the Sneinton Environmental Society and the City authorities. She also made a major contribution to the organisation of the 1993 Bicentenary celebrations of Green's birth that involved events in Nottingham, Cambridge and London, and she gave much input on the design of the Memorial Services at Sr Stephen's, Sneinton and at Westminster Abbey. Many other activities supported by the fund, such as the naming of a Green room in the Bromley House Library, establishment of the Green website, the location of items for the Green Collection in the University of Nottingham library and the restoration of Toplis' tomb in South Walsham, had been her idea and owed a lot to her in their execution. The Green family became her friends and she wrote a letter to them every Christmas to explain what the Fund had done in the past year. She did all this with tremendous energy and enthusiasm and always with great friendliness and humour.
Mary Cannell received a number of honours including being made a Fellow of the University of Nottingham (1995), an honorary graduate of the Open University (1996) and an honorary graduate of Nottingham Trent University (posthumously) (2000). She died in the year 2000 and left money to fund Summer Studentships in mathematics at the University of Nottingham. We also note that she donated money to fund the George Green Prize for Mathematics and the George Green Prize for Physics at the Merchant Taylors' Girls School.

Let us end with Lawrie Challis's description of Cannell [4]:-
Mary was a very special person who made friends and gained respect wherever she went. She had great warmth and a style and charm that seemed to come from a slightly earlier age. She is greatly missed by her many friends and colleagues.

References (show)

  1. M Cannell and N J Lord, George Green, mathematician and physicist 1793-1841, The Mathematical Gazette 77 (478) (1993), 26-51.
  2. M Cannell, George Green: an enigmatic mathematician, Amer. Math. Monthly 106 (2) (1999), 136-151.
  3. M Cannell, George Green: Mathematician and Physicist 1793-1841: The Background to His Life and Work (2nd edition) (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2001).
  4. L Challis, In Memoriam: Mary Cannell, in D M Cannell, George Green : Mathematician and Physicist 1793-1841: The Background to His Life and Work (2nd edition) (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2001).
  5. J Fauvel, Mary Cannell, The Guardian (June 202000).
  6. I Grattan-Guinness, Review: George Green: Mathematician and Physicist, 1793-1841: The Background to His Life and Work, by D M Cannell, Isis 85 (4) (1994), 707.
  7. I Grattan-Guinness, Review: George Green: Mathematician and Physicist, 1793-1841: The Background to His Life and Work, by D M Cannell, SIAM Review 44 (1) (2002), 144-145.
  8. D Graves, Review: George Green: Mathematician and Physicist, 1793-1841: The Background to His Life and Work, by D M Cannell, Mathematical Association of America Review.
  9. E H Mansfield, Review: George Green: Mathematician and Physicist, 1793-1841: The Background to His Life and Work, by D M Cannell, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 48 (2) (1994), 321-322.
  10. R Mazzeo, Review: George Green: Mathematician and Physicist, 1793-1841: The Background to His Life and Work, by D M Cannell, Mathematical Reviews MR1287845 (95j:01029).
  11. C Smith, Review: George Green: Mathematician and Physicist, 1793-1841: The Background to His Life and Work, by D M Cannell, The British Journal for the History of Science 27 (4) (1994), 477-479.

Additional Resources (show)

Written by J J O'Connor and E F Robertson
Last Update December 2021