Chrystal, George

(1851-1911), mathematician

by Ronald M. Birse

© Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved

Chrystal, George (1851-1911), mathematician, was born on 8 March 1851 at Mill of Kingoodie in the parish of Bourtie, near Old Meldrum, Aberdeenshire, the son of William Chrystal of Gateside, a man of natural talent and determination, a grain merchant and later a farmer and landed proprietor, and his wife, Margaret, daughter of James Burr of Mains of Glack, Aberdeenshire. He was educated first at the parish school of Old Meldrum where he showed marked intellectual ability, although physically he was not strong and was hampered by a lameness which he later outgrew. After the family moved to Aberdeen he entered the grammar school in 1863, winning several prize medals as well as the Williamson scholarship at the University of Aberdeen, which he entered in 1867; he graduated with first-class honours in 1871. He was much attracted to classical and linguistic studies, interests which he maintained to the end of his life, but he also developed his natural vocation in the mathematical sciences, gaining prizes and scholarships in mathematics and physics as well as an open scholarship at Peterhouse, Cambridge, which he took up in 1872. There he found the work involved in the mathematical tripos relatively straightforward and soon after his arrival began to undertake experimental work in the laboratory and engage in other leisure pursuits. He won the members' prize in 1873 for an English essay on 'Wit and humour in English poetry', and graduated BA in 1875 as second wrangler and Smith's prizeman, proceeding MA in 1878. He was elected to a fellowship of Corpus Christi College in 1875, and was appointed a lecturer there; in later life he was made an honorary fellow.

While an undergraduate at Cambridge, Chrystal not only read mathematics but studied experimental physics under Professor James Clerk Maxwell, who in 1875 was appointed to a small committee of the British Association given the task of verifying by experiment Ohm's law respecting the relation between the current and the electromotive force in a wire. Maxwell devised two experimental procedures and the work was carried out in the Cavendish Laboratory by Chrystal, whose care and skill in making the delicate measurements contributed much to the accuracy of the results, and enabled the committee to say that Ohm's law had been verified within the almost negligible limits of error of the experiment. To his report on the results, which Maxwell presented to the British Association at Glasgow in 1876, Chrystal added a brief account of another series of experiments he had undertaken on the deflection of a galvanometer. In connection with all these experiments Maxwell expressed his appreciation of the difficulties which Chrystal encountered and overcame in the course of this work.

In 1877 Chrystal left Cambridge to become professor of mathematics at St Andrews University, and on 26 June 1879 he married Margaret Ann (d. 1903), daughter of William Balfour; he had known her since childhood. Chrystal succeeded Professor Philip Kelland in the chair of mathematics at Edinburgh in October 1879, occupying it with much distinction for thirty-two years. There he greatly stimulated interest in mathematics in the university through the clearness and conciseness of his expositions of mathematical theory, although like so many naturally gifted mathematicians his undergraduate lectures were readily absorbed only by the very brightest of his students. At the same time he actively interested himself in the general academic organization. Elected dean of the faculty of arts in 1891, he rendered valuable service in reorganizing the arts curriculum, particularly after the wide-ranging changes introduced by the Universities (Scotland) Act of 1889. He was also first chairman of the provincial committee for the training of teachers, and made other important contributions to the improvement of secondary school education in Scotland. He was highly regarded by his contemporaries as an administrator with an exceptionally quick grasp of complicated detail, and as a tactful and fair negotiator. In addition to his professorial duties Chrystal pursued experimental researches which he had begun at Cambridge, working in the laboratory of his colleague, Peter Guthrie Tait, and took a leading part in the affairs of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He was elected a fellow of the society in 1880 and became vice-president in 1887, at the early age of thirty-six. He served in this capacity for twelve years, and in 1901, on Professor Tait's death, he was chosen general secretary. To the society's Transactions (29, 1880, 609-36) he contributed the result of his inquiries into the differential telephone and its application to electrical measurements, for which he was awarded the society's Keith prize.

Soon after the turn of the century he was asked by Sir John Murray for advice in connection with observations of seiches (periodic oscillations of the water surface) on Scottish lochs. With typical enthusiasm he began a theoretical analysis of the problem, at the same time enrolling a devoted band of observers and inventing more sensitive instruments for them to use, eventually obtaining theoretical and experimental results which shed a new light on the whole set of phenomena. From 1904 to 1910 he published a classic series of papers on the subject, including 'On the hydrodynamical theory of seiches, with a bibliographical sketch' in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (41, 1905, 599-649); in the same journal: (with E. Maclagan-Wedderburn) 'Calculation of the periods and nodes of Lochs Earn and Treig, from the bathymetric data of the Scottish lake survey' (41, 1905, 823-50); (with J. Murray) 'An investigation of the seiches of Loch Earn' (45, 1906-7, 361-96, and 46, 1908-9, 455-518), and 'Seiches and other oscillations of lake surfaces, observed by the Scottish lake survey' (in Bathymetrical Survey of the Scottish Freshwater Lochs, ed. J. Murray and L. Pullar, 1, 1910, 29-90). For these researches he was awarded a royal medal by the Royal Society of London in 1911. He read a paper on the subject before the Royal Institution in London on 17 May 1907. He was made an honorary LLD of Aberdeen University in March 1887 and of Glasgow in October 1911.

Chrystal wrote many articles on mathematical, scientific, and biographical subjects for the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the chief being those on electricity and magnetism, which compress into a small compass remarkably complete accounts of those sciences at that time. His Algebra, an Elementary Textbook for the Higher Classes of Secondary Schools and for Colleges (part 1, 1886, part 2, 1889), became a standard work, and was notable for the originality and lucidity of its reasoning. The text of his address on 'Non-Euclidean geometry' was printed in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (10, 1879-80, 638-64).

Chrystal died on 3 November 1911 at his home, 5 Belgrave Crescent, Edinburgh, and was buried on 8 November at Foveran churchyard, Aberdeenshire. He was survived by four sons and two daughters; his eldest son Sir George (William) Chrystal (1880-1944) studied at Edinburgh University and Balliol College, Oxford. He held a number of posts in the civil service, ending his career as permanent secretary in the Ministry of Health (1935-40). He published a number of literary works and was appointed CB in 1920, and created KCB in 1922.


Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 32 (1911-12), 477-503
The Scotsman (4 Nov 1911)
The Times (4 Nov 1911)
R. Schlapp, 'Chrystal, George', DSB
Nature, 88 (1911-12), 47-9
private information (1912)

CUL, Add. MS 8375
NL Scot., papers
Royal Society of Edinburgh, books and papers on the subject of seiches
U. Edin. L., lecture notes
U. St Andr. L., notes of his lectures |  CUL, corresp. with Lord Kelvin
CUL, Maxwell MSS
CUL, letters to George Stokes

W. Hole, etching, NPG; repro. in W. Hole, Quasi cursores (1884)
portraits, U. Edin.

Wealth at death  
£7596 16s. 2d.: confirmation, 20 Dec 1911, CCI

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