Samuel Haughton

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21 December 1821
Carlow, Ireland
31 October 1897
Dublin, Ireland

Samuel Haughton was an Irish mathematician, geologist and priest who published on a wide variety of topics. He is remembered for his work on hanging as a humane method of execution.


Samuel Haughton's parents were Samuel Haughton Sr. (1787-1877) and Sarah Hancock (1787-1861). We note that several biographies give the father of the subject of this biography as the social reformer James Haughton (1795-1873) but this is incorrect. Samuel Haughton Sr. was a merchant living at Burrin House, County Carlow. He seems to have dealt with several different types of merchandise. For example, in the Carlow Directory of 1824 [3], Samuel Haughton of Burrin Street is listed as a linen and woollen draper while in the Carlow Directory of 1839 [19] he is listed as a merchant of corn, butter, timber, and slate. Sarah Hancock was the daughter of John Hancock, a linen merchant from Lisburn. Samuel and Sarah, both Quakers, were married on 10 April 1817 in Carlow. They had seven children: John Hancock, Dora, Fanny, Samuel (the subject of this biography), Louisa, Elizabeth-Anne, and Harriet. The town of Carlow in 1824 (when the subject of this biography was two years old) is described in [3] as follows:-
Anciently called Catherlough, or "the city on the lake", [Carlow] is agreeably situated on the river Barrow. It is the assize town of the county, and distant forty miles south by west of Dublin, twenty-four south of Naas, and eighteen miles north by east of Kilkenny. It consists of two main streets intersecting each other at right angles, and of others of minor importance, branching from the former; besides these there are extensive suburbs on each side the river.
Samuel Haughton was brought up in Carlow where he attended the Carlow Diocesan School in Church Lane. At school, he was friendly with his cousin Wilfred Haughton (1822-1899), a son of Thomas Haughton who was also a Carlow merchant, and the two boys worked together to build a steam engine. They declared that it worked to their satisfaction. Haughton, however, had a wide range of interests and was taught Hebrew, botany, chemistry and astronomy by the Rev John Emerson of Mayo. Emerson also taught him about the geology of the Leinster coalfield, thus giving Haughton an interest in a topic that he would study for most of his life. The young boy thought at this stage that he might aim for a clerical career, in particular to devote himself to missionary work. As a consequence, he worked at the local hospital where he was taught by Dr Thomas Rawson. As a Quaker, Haughton would not have been eligible to study at Trinity College, Dublin. At this time Trinity College, Dublin, restricted its degrees, fellowships, and scholarships to Anglicans so Haughton converted to become an Anglican.

Haughton entered Trinity College, Dublin, in 1838 where he studied mathematics and science. At this time there were some outstanding mathematicians at Trinity College Dublin including William Rowan Hamilton, James MacCullagh, Charles Graves and Humphrey Lloyd. George Salmon, who graduated from Trinity College, Dublin, in 1838, became a lecturer there in 1841. Haughton excelled as an undergraduate as Cunningham explains in [4]:-
[Haughton] possessed in a remarkable degree the qualities which lead to success in College life, quickness of apprehension, a clear head, and a tenacious and ready memory.
In 1842 he was awarded the Lloyd Exhibition in mathematics and he graduated in the following year ranked first among the mathematics graduates. He was advised by George Salmon to enter the competition for a fellowship [7]:-
... the examination for fellowship was formidable, being held on twelve days preceding Trinity Sunday from nine to twelve in the forenoon and two to five in the afternoon of each day. The subjects of the examination were pure and applied mathematics, experimental physics, mental and moral philosophy, Greek language and literature, Latin language and literature, and Hebrew and cognate languages.
He was awarded a fellowship in the 1844 examination, becoming the youngest person to achieve this distinction. In order to take up a Fellowship at Trinity College Dublin one was required to take holy orders in the Church of Ireland, which indeed he did, being ordained deacon in 1846 and priest in 1847. Joseph Galbraith was four years older that Haughton and graduated in 1839, four years before Haughton, but he also was awarded a fellowship in the 1844 examination. He was talented in applying mathematics to a wide range of different topics and the two young men were close friends and became collaborators [5]:-
Shortly after graduating, Galbraith, Haughton and two other Junior Fellows began a course of lectures to prepare young men for the entrance examinations to the artillery and engineers branches of the military academy in Woolwich, and the Indian civil service. Their students were highly successful at obtaining these positions, but in 1851 the classes were discontinued at the request of the Board of Trinity College, and the two men directed their energies on the preparation of scientific manuals.
Before describing these manuals, we note that Haughton married his half-cousin Louisa Haughton (1828-1888) in 1848; they were half-cousins since their fathers were half-brothers. Samuel and Louisa Haughton had four sons: Samuel (born 1849), John (born 1851), Thomas (born 1853) and William Steele (born 1869) and two daughters, Louisa and one who died in infancy.

Returning to the Galbraith-Haughton manuals we list them together with the date of publication by Longmans of their first edition: Mechanics (1854), Optics (1854), Hydrostatics (1854), Trigonometry (1852), Arithmetic (1854), Astronomy (1856), Euclid I-III (1854), Euclid IV-VI (1859), Algebra (1860), Mathematical Tables (1860), Steam Engine (1864), and Tides & Currents (1862). We note that these were very popular; they sold well and some ran to as many as 14 or 15 editions.

After his success in the fellowship examination, Haughton undertook research in applied mathematics. As an undergraduate he had been taught by James MacCullagh and, after taking up the fellowship, he shared a room with MacCullagh who informally took on the role of Haughton's research advisor. His research involved applying mathematics to various areas of physics and chemistry. This work was highly successful and, in 1848, Haughton was awarded the Cunningham medal by the Royal Irish Academy for his paper On the laws of equilibrium and motion of solid and fluid bodies (1846) which he published in the Cambridge and Dublin Mathematical Journal. However, this outstanding work by Haughton came to an abrupt end when MacCullagh committed suicide in October 1847. Haughton had attended MacCullagh's lectures On the rotation of a solid body round a fixed point and he published a paper in the Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy in 1849 "Being an Account of the Late Professor MacCullagh's Lectures on That Subject".

In addition to his interest in mathematics, Haughton was keen on geology. He may well have decided to concentrate his efforts on this topic so that he might be a strong candidate for the chair of geology which was soon to become vacant. He began undertaking research in geology and was appointed to the chair of geology at Trinity College, Dublin, in 1851 but continued to hold his fellowship. From the time he was appointed to the fellowship, he had been in the School of Engineering, which had been established in 1841 mainly through the efforts of MacCullagh. Geology was in the School of Engineering so Haughton's work remained totally within this School. Haughton had not moved into a totally different area when he concentrated on geology since he had studied optical properties of crystals when working with MacCullagh and he could be considered as the world's leading expert on mathematical modelling in geophysics [9]:-
A hot area in the geological research of the day concerned physical mechanisms of geological formation, and Haughton rapidly moved into this area in his work on tides. His geological researches eventually, and quite typically of Haughton, stretched over many fields including regional geography, stratigraphy, palaeontology, mineralogy, petrology, structural geology and economic geology (mining).
If this was not a broad enough range of topics for any single person to undertake, Haughton registered as an undergraduate in medicine in 1859. It was certainly a bold step for someone with his position and experience to sit down with undergraduates 20 years his junior. We note that he continued to keep his fellowship and his chair of geology despite being a medical undergraduate. As we noted above, he had shown an interest in medicine before becoming an undergraduate and had published a couple of papers on the topic. However, it is likely that his real reason for taking on these undergraduate studies was to gain experience of a school that was in serious need of reform [15]:-
Finding that the School of Physic in Ireland was inefficient and in need of reform, he conceived the scheme of entering it as a student and, having attended the classes and hospital, he graduated in medicine in 1862.
As soon as he had graduated, Haughton set about reforming the medical school at Trinity College which was suffering both from poor governance from the College Board, who were ignorant of medicine, and from poor teaching by staff lacking motivation. Haughton was appointed registrar of Trinity Medical School in 1864 and this put him in a position to carry out a series of reforms. He organised the setting up of a 3-man committee to look at medical education in the United Kingdom and, in particular, in Trinity College. The committee, chaired by Haughton, introduced a system of yearly reports so that the performance of different parts of the Medical School could be readily monitored. Some staff who were not carrying out their duties satisfactorily were dismissed and within a few years the School was running smoothly.

Haughton was not only concerned with improving the Medical School but he looked for reforms of the whole Irish education system. He wrote an interesting essay on the topic in 1868 and we give the opening paragraphs at THIS LINK.

We have looked at many positive aspects of Haughton's contributions, but there was one major negative contribution. Charles Darwin published his famous work on evolution On the Origin of Species in 1859. The first papers on evolution, by Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, had been presented in London in 1858 by the geologist Charles Lyell and the botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker. Haughton must have seen copies of these papers for as early as 9 February 1859, before the publication of Darwin's famous book, Haughton attacked the theory at a meeting of the Geological Society of Dublin. The published version of his attack reads:-
This speculation of Mess. Darwin and Wallace would not be worthy of note were it not for the weight of authority of the names under whose auspices it has been brought forward. If it means what it says, it is a truism; if it means anything more, it is contrary to fact.
Darwin later noted that Haughton's attack, which he understood to mean that "all that [was] new in there was false, and what was true was old" was the only attack on the papers. Haughton continued to attack Darwin's theory, writing in 1860:-
... to establish a character for subtlety and skill, in drawing large conclusions on this subject from slender premises, the first requisite is, ignorance of what other speculators have attempted before us in the same field: and the second is, a firm confidence in our own special theory. Neither of these requisites can be considered wanting in those who are engaged in the task of reproducing Lamarck's theory of organic life, either as altogether new, or with but a tattered threadbare cloak, thrown over its original nakedness.
Haughton's continued opposition to the theory of evolution had, as one would expect, a negative effect on teaching in Trinity College Dublin for many years.

Another aspect of Haughton's work which we choose neither to describe as a positive contribution nor as a negative one is his paper On Hanging considered from a Mechanical and Physiological point of view which was published in the London, Edinburgh and Dublin Philosophical Magazine in 1866. Haughton argued that any humane hanging required a drop of sufficient length so that the person's neck was broken. Otherwise, he argued, the person was strangled and suffered much pain. He computed that a drop of 4.5-metres was required to break the neck of a 160lb (72.5kg) person. His calculations, which were known as 'Haughton's Drop', were used in hanging people in Britain for many years.

We should mention some other contribution from this man of exceptionally broad interests. He worked on tides using data from around Ireland and from the Canadian Arctic. From this data he computed an estimate for the mass of the moon and its orbital eccentricity. He produced models of the earth and its internal structure. He calculated the age of the Earth from sediments deposited on the ocean floor and came up with an age of 200 million years. Although this is quite far from the correct value of around 4600 million years, it is better than the value that Lord Kelvin had found, Kelvin's being the accepted value at the time that Haughton published his results. Haughton also used a variety of other techniques to find the age of the earth, one of which produced 2300 million years which he published even though it conflicted with his anti-evolutionist beliefs. Other work by Haughton that we should mention is the 31 papers he published on animal mechanics. As with so much of his work, this contained applied mathematics in the broadest sense.

It would appear that Haughton's ordination was mainly to obtain a fellowship but, although he had no pastoral duties, nevertheless he preached many sermons. However, only two of his sermons on 'The gospel of nature' and 'The death of Christ', both delivered in 1881, were published. Among his most important books, in addition to those already mentioned, are Manual of Geology (1865), Principles of Animal Mechanics (1873) and Six Lectures on Physical Geography (1880).

His wife Louisa died in 1888, and from then on Haughton's spinster sister (also named Louisa) ran his household.

Haughton received many honours including election to the Royal Irish Academy (1845), election to the Royal Society of London (1858), and honorary degrees from the University of Oxford in 1868, the University of Cambridge in 1880, the University of Edinburgh in 1884, and the University of Bologna in 1888.

As to Haughton's character we quote from [15]:-
The personal charm of Dr Haughton's character was something which cannot be expressed in words, while to the outside public he was a brilliant speaker, a racy raconteur, a versatile genius, and a sagacious man of affairs; to the inner circle of his friends he was a wise and willing advisor, one ever ready to help and to guide, affectionate, sincere, and intensely sympathetic, a calm and simple Christian who in all his work ever kept clearly before him his responsibilities as a Christian teacher.
He had suffered from a heart problem for some time before his death at the age of 76. His funeral was held in Trinity College, Dublin and, as the local paper reported at the time:-
... the funeral then proceeded to Kingsbridge Railway Terminus Dublin for Carlow. [Arriving at 1.30] the coffin was carried to the hearse by near relatives of the lamented deceased. On route through the town to the family burial ground at Killeshin the business houses were closed and blinds drawn in private dwellings as a mark of respect to the memory of one whose name and family have been creditably associated with the professional and commercial history of Carlow for considerably over a century.
Haughton was further honoured on Sunday 25 August 2005 when a plaque was placed on the wall outside the house in Carlow in which he was born. As a final comment we should note that if Haughton had accepted Darwin's theory of evolution he would be better known and respected today. His arguments against evolution have diminished people's respect for the other work he undertook.

References (show)

  1. D E Cartwright, Tides: A Scientific History (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2000).
  2. P J Bowler, Charles Darwin and his Dublin critics: Samuel Haughton and William Henry Harvey, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 109C (2009), 409-420.
  3. Carlow Town, in PIGOT and Co.'s Provincial Directory of 1824.
  4. D J Cunningham, Samuel Haughton (1821-1897), Proc. Roy. Soc. London 62 (1897-98), 28-37.
  5. M DeArce, The parallel lives of Joseph Allen Galbraith (1818-90) and Samuel Haughton (1821-97): religion, friendship, scholarship and politics in Victorian Ireland, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 112C (2011), 1-27.
  6. Haughton, Samuel, Encyclopaedia Britannica (1911).
  7. W J E Jessop, Samuel Haughton, a Victorian polymath, Hermathena 116 (1973), 5-26·
  8. Mary, Halloween: Samuel Haughton's 'humane hanging', Ingenious Ireland (31 October 2012).
  9. N D McMillan, Samuel Haughton, in M McCartney and A Whitaker, Physicists of Ireland: Passion and Precision (CRC Press, 2003), 106-115.
  10. N D McMillan, Revd. Samuel Haughton and the age of the earth controversy, in J Nudds, N McMillan, D Weaire, and S M Lawlor (eds.), Science in Ireland, 1800-1930: tradition and reform (1988), 151-162.
  11. N D MacMillan, The Rev. Samuel Haughton, a man of great erudition and a determined opponent of the theory of evolution Part I, Carloviana (1980), 12-14.
  12. N D MacMillan, The Rev. Samuel Haughton, a man of great erudition and a determined opponent of the theory of evolution Part II, Carloviana (1981), 10-13.
  13. A C O'Sullivan, Haughton man of science, in Sidney Lee (ed.), Oxford dictionary of national biography 22 (London, 1909), 823-825. See THIS LINK.
  14. P J Prendergast and T C Lee, On a wing and a prayer: the biomechanics of the Rev Dr Samuel Haughton (1821-1897), J. Irish College Physicians Surgeons 28 (1) (1999), 38-43.
  15. Rev Samuel Haughton, M.D., D.C.L., LL.D, British Medical J. 1923 (2) (1897), 1376-1377.
  16. A Rodger, Samuel Haughton (1821-1897), J. Med. Eng. Technol. 17 (5) (1993), 168-170.
  17. Samuel Haughton. December 21, 1821 - October 31, 1897, Carlow County - Ireland Genealogical Projects.
  18. Samuel Haughton, in Grace's Guide to British Industrial History.
  19. Shearman's Directory New Commercial Directory for the Town Carlow.
  20. D Spearman, Samuel Haughton, (1821-1897), Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy (3) 4 (1898), 283-287.
  21. D Spearman, Samuel Haughton, in C Mollan, W Davis, and B Finucane (eds.), More people and places in Irish science and technology (1990), 36-37.

Additional Resources (show)

Other pages about Samuel Haughton:

  1. University Education in Ireland

Other websites about Samuel Haughton:

  1. Dictionary of National Biography
  2. zbMATH entry
  3. ERAM Jahrbuch entry

Cross-references (show)

Written by J J O'Connor and E F Robertson
Last Update February 2016