Watson, Henry William

(1827-1903), mathematician and Church of England clergyman

by T. E. James, rev. Julia Tompson

© Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved

Watson, Henry William (1827-1903), mathematician and Church of England clergyman, was born in Marylebone, Middlesex, on 25 February 1827, the son of Thomas Watson RN and his wife, Eleanor Mary Kingston. Educated at King's College, London, he won the first mathematical scholarship instituted there and proceeded in 1846 to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was a scholar. He graduated as second wrangler and Smith's prizeman in 1850 and became a fellow of the college in 1851, serving as assistant tutor in 1851-3. While at Cambridge he formed a close friendship with James Fitzjames Stephen, and other members of the exclusive and secretive undergraduate society known as the Apostles.

After a short stay in London studying law (with Stephen as a fellow student), Watson in 1854 became mathematics master in the City of London School and three years later was mathematical lecturer at King's College, London. In 1856 he married Emily, daughter of Henry Rowe of Cambridge. They had one son and two daughters. The mathematician Robert Baldwin Hayward later became his brother-in-law. In the year of his marriage Watson was ordained deacon, taking priest's orders in 1858. From 1857 to 1865 he was a mathematics master at Harrow School, which he left when he was offered the care of the parish of Berkswell, near Coventry. He delighted in mountaineering and was one of the founders of the Alpine Club in 1857; he left the club in 1862.

Watson served as an examiner for the mathematical tripos in Cambridge (1860-61, 1877), as well as for the University of London (1893-6). He was one of the founders of the Birmingham Philosophical Society and its president in 1880-81. He was elected FRS on 2 June 1881. Cambridge University conferred on him the ScD degree in 1884.

Watson published a textbook on two- and three-dimensional geometry in 1871 and his best-known work, Treatise on the Kinetic Theory of Gases, in 1876. This was both a summary of the work of his predecessors, in particular of Maxwell and Boltzmann, and a discussion and development of the issues. A second edition appeared in 1893, dealing with criticisms given in correspondence by Maxwell. In collaboration with Samuel Hawksley Burbury he wrote a monograph on the use of generalized coordinates in dynamics (1879) and The Mathematical Theory of Electricity and Magnetism (1885-9). The article on molecules in the Encyclopaedia Britannica (9th edn) was also written jointly with Burbury. In addition Watson contributed journal articles on partial differential equations and the kinetic theory of gases. He also collaborated with Sir Francis Galton to produce an article, 'On the probability of the extinction of families', for the Journal of the Anthropological Institute. He died at his home, 1 Chichester Place, Brighton, on 11 January 1903, five months after his retirement from Berkswell.


S. H. B., PRS, 75 (1905), 266-9
Nature, 67 (1902-3), 274-5
Men and women of the time (1899)
The Times (13 Jan 1903), 7
Venn, Alum. Cant.
CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1903)

T. C. Wageman, watercolour, Trinity Cam.

Wealth at death  
£8087 9s. 11d.: probate, 21 Feb 1903, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved


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