Kempe, Sir Alfred Bray

(1849-1922), lawyer and mathematician

by Robin J. Wilson

© Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved

Kempe, Sir Alfred Bray (1849-1922), lawyer and mathematician, was born on 6 July 1849 in Kensington, London, the fourth of five children of Prebendary John Edward Kempe, rector of St James's, Piccadilly, and his wife, Harriet, daughter of the Revd Robert Serrell Wood. He was educated at St Paul's School, London, where he was Camden exhibitioner, and at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was twenty-second wrangler in mathematics in 1872.

On leaving Cambridge, Kempe embarked on a legal career, becoming a barrister of the Inner Temple and practising on the western circuit in 1873. He quickly established a reputation for clarity of mind and scrupulous fairness. From 1881 to 1883 he was secretary of the royal commission on the ecclesiastical courts, and came to be respected as a recognized authority on ecclesiastical law. He was appointed to six diocesan chancellorships, Newcastle, Southwell, St Albans, Peterborough, Chichester, and finally London in 1912. He received an honorary doctorate of civil laws from Durham University in 1908, and in the following year was elected a bencher of the Middle Temple.

Throughout his life Kempe sustained a passionate interest in mathematics, writing his first paper in 1872, the year in which he received his degree. His mathematical contributions, although few in number, were highly regarded by his contemporaries and he was elected fellow of the Royal Society on 2 June 1881 and was president of the London Mathematical Society from 1892 to 1894. His first mathematical paper concerned the solution of equations by mechanical means. This work arose from his interest in kinematics, and in particular from the construction of mechanical linkages for drawing various curves, a subject stimulated by Peaucellier's discovery of a linkage that traces a straight line. He presented some popular lectures on the subject in Kensington, which led in 1877 to the publication of a celebrated memoir entitled How to Draw a Straight Line.

Kempe's best-known paper is probably his incorrect solution in 1879 of the map colour theorem, that the countries of any map can be coloured with just four colours so that neighbouring countries are differently coloured; this paper was commissioned by James Joseph Sylvester for his newly founded American Journal of Mathematics. Although Kempe's solution proved to be deficient, as demonstrated by Percy Heawood in 1890, it contained important ideas that were to resurface in the eventual solution by Kenneth Appel and Wolfgang Haken in 1976. Another of his mathematical writings was 'A memoir introductory to a general theory of mathematical form', published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1886. This work on the fundamental nature of mathematics, together with its successor in the Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society in 1890 relating the logical theory of classes to the geometrical theory of points, led to a set theory (now called multisets) more general than that of George Cantor, and contains a novel use of tree diagrams to represent mathematical form; it was to influence particularly the American philosopher C. S. Peirce. Such considerations enabled Kempe to fill some lacunae in W. K. Clifford's posthumous papers on the theory of algebraic invariants; indeed, in many ways he can be regarded as Clifford's mathematical successor.

In 1898 Kempe was elected treasurer and a vice-president of the Royal Society, posts he held with distinction for twenty-one years. He played a major role in the administration of the British National Antarctic Expedition of 1901-4, and Mount Kempe and Kempe glacier in South Victoria Land are named after him. He was also involved in the establishment and building of the National Physical Laboratory, a massive project undertaken by the Royal Society in 1902, and with the eventual transference of its control to the state in 1918. Much of the credit for the early development and success of this institution is due to Kempe. His legal expertise, his clearness of judgement in administrative matters, and his conciliatory nature in matters of dispute proved to be of immense value in negotiations between the Royal Society and other parties, particularly in his frequent disputes with government agencies over funding. He was knighted in 1912 in recognition of his contributions to the society.

Kempe was married twice: first in 1877 to Mary, daughter of the oculist Sir William Bowman, who died in 1893 leaving no children, and second in 1897 to Alice Ida Meadows, daughter of Judge Meadows White, who survived him and with whom he had two sons and a daughter. His main relaxations were in mountain walking and music. He was a keen alpinist and visited Switzerland over forty times to admire the scenery and enjoy the alpine flora. As a musician he was blessed with a fine counter-tenor voice, singing with the Bach Choir and the Moray Minstrels (a men's glee club) and occasionally helping the Westminster Abbey choir at evening services.

Kempe's health broke down in 1917, possibly due to the immense strain caused by his many duties, and in 1919 he felt compelled to resign the treasurership of the Royal Society, while remaining on the council. Eventually, pneumonia overtook him, and he died peacefully at his home, 50 Sussex Gardens, Hyde Park, London, on 21 April 1922.


A. Geikie, PRS, 102A (1922-3), i-x
W. Sussex RO, Kempe family papers
election certificate, RS
N. L. Biggs, E. K. Lloyd, and R. J. Wilson, Graph theory, 1736-1936 (1976)

W. Sussex RO, corresp. and papers

photograph (as young man), London Mathematical Society, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London, Tucker collection
photograph, repro. in Geikie, PRS
photogravure?, NPG [see illus.]

Wealth at death  
£3456 17s. 4d.: probate, 17 June 1922, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved


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