Glaisher, James Whitbread Lee

(1848-1928), mathematician

by A. R. Forsyth, rev. J. J. Gray

© Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved

Glaisher, James Whitbread Lee (1848-1928), mathematician, was born at Dartmouth Terrace, Lewisham, Kent, on 5 November 1848, the elder son of James Glaisher (1809-1903), astronomer and meteorologist, and his wife, Cecilia Louisa Belville (1829-1892). He was sent to St Paul's School, London, in 1858. In 1867 he went to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was elected a scholar the following year, and in 1871 he graduated second wrangler. He was elected a fellow of Trinity in October 1871 and was at once appointed a lecturer and assistant tutor. He remained in residence at Trinity for the rest of his life.

Glaisher's lectureship continued for thirty years until 1901, a special extension having been made by the college council; he was a tutor of the college from 1883 to 1893, then the customary period of tenure. He proceeded to the newly established Cambridge degree of ScD in 1887. He never held any permanent appointment outside Cambridge and he refused the official invitation to become astronomer royal in 1881 on the retirement of Sir George Airy.

Glaisher was much involved in the scientific organizations of his time. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society at the early age of twenty-seven in 1875, served on its council for three periods (1883-4, 1890-92, 1917-19), and was awarded the Sylvester medal in 1913. His earliest original paper (dealing with numerical tables of some non-evaluable integrals), written while he was still an undergraduate, was communicated to the society in 1870 by Arthur Cayley. Glaisher joined the London Mathematical Society in 1872, was a member of its council continuously until his retirement in 1906, served as president in 1884-6, and was awarded the De Morgan medal in 1908. His presidential address of 1886 gave an interesting history of the Cambridge mathematical tripos and anticipated some of the changes made in 1909, when the Order of Merit and the title of wrangler were abolished. He joined the Royal Astronomical Society in 1871, was on its council from 1874 until 1928, served twice as president (1886-8 and 1901-3), and for thirty-three years presided over the Royal Astronomical Society club. Like his father, he was active in the British Association for the Advancement of Science, as secretary of Section A for a number of years, as president of the section at the Leeds meeting of 1890, and as a member of many of the committees dealing with numerical tables, and of those reporting on the contemporary state of mathematical science. He used his address to the Leeds meeting of 1890 to call for greater recognition of pure mathematics as a subject in its own right. Among other societies to which he belonged were the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, and he was also a foreign member of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington.

The main part of Glaisher's published work consists of his papers on mathematics and astronomy. In later life he wrote papers on ceramics and he also contributed an appendix on Wrotham ware to English Pottery (1924), by B. Rackham and H. Read. The number of his mathematical papers amounts to nearly four hundred, few of which are of lasting interest. Mention should, however, be made of his contributions to definite integrals, differential equations, elliptic functions and their developments, and, significantly for Cambridge, to the theory of numbers particularly in connection with elliptic functions. He devoted much attention to the calculation of mathematical tables such as those of the Theta-functions; and from the beginning to the end of all his work he maintained a productive interest in the history of mathematics. His historical writings ranged from the origins of the plus and minus signs to the work of Napier and Briggs on logarithms in the seventeenth century and H. J. S. Smith's work on numbers and elliptic functions in the nineteenth century. For many of the later years of his life he provided finance for the Messenger of Mathematics and the Quarterly Journal of Pure and Applied Mathematics, both of which ceased to exist at Cambridge after his death.

In middle life Glaisher began his study of ceramics which developed into the dominant pursuit of his remaining years and resulted in his becoming one of the leading collectors of his day. The elaborate catalogue of his collection, in forty manuscript volumes, is a valuable addition to the literature of the subject. He bequeathed his collection and a substantial cash legacy to the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

Very tall, and spare in frame, Glaisher was fond of walking and cycling. Even in his early seventies he maintained the vitality and the geniality of youth, and it was only in the last years of his life that his health gave way. He died in his college rooms in New Court on 7 December 1928 and was buried at Cambridge. He never married.

A. R. FORSYTH, rev. J. J. GRAY

J. J. Thomson, Cambridge Review (25 Jan 1929), 212-13
G. H. Hardy, 'Dr Glaisher and the Messenger of Mathematics', Messenger of Mathematics, 58 (1929), 159-60
H. H. T. [H. H. Turner], Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 89 (1928-9), 300-08
A. R. Forsyth, Journal of the London Mathematical Society, 4 (1929), 101-12
B. Rackham, The Glaisher bequest (1931) [Fitzwilliam Museum pamphlet]
personal knowledge (1929)
b. cert.
d. cert.

Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, John Hay Library, corresp., letters and papers
RGS |  Air Force Research Laboratories, Cambridge, Massachusetts, letters to Sir George Strutt
CUL, Stokes MSS

Maull & Fox, photograph, 1891-2, RS
F. Dodd, pencil drawing, Trinity Cam.
Maull & Fox, two photographs, RS

Wealth at death  
£43,223 18s. 8d.: probate, 15 April 1929, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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