R L Ellis's obituary of D F Gregory

Duncan Farquharson Gregory studied the Mathematical tripos at Trinity College, Cambridge becoming Fifth Wrangler in 1837. He was elected a fellow of Trinity College in 1840. Leslie Ellis studied at Trinity College, matriculating in 1836. Following D F Gregory's death at the age of 30 in 1844, Ellis wrote a Memoir of the Late D F Gregory which was published in Cambridge Mathematical Journal 4 (22) (1844), 145-152. We give a version of the Memoir below.

Memoir of the Late D F Gregory, M.A., Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge.

by R Leslie Ellis, Esq., Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge.

The subject of the following memoir died in his thirty-first year. He had, nevertheless, accomplished enough not only to justify high expectations of his future progress in the science to which he had principally devoted himself, but also to entitle his name to a place in some permanent record.

Duncan Farquharson Gregory was born at Edinburgh in April 1813. He was the youngest son of Dr James Gregory, the distinguished professor of Medicine, and was thus of the same family as the two celebrated mathematicians James and David Gregory. The former of these, his direct ancestor, is familiarly remembered as the inventor of the telescope which bears his name; he lived in an age of great mathematicians, and was not unworthy to be their contemporary.

Of the early years of Mr Gregory's life but little need be said. The peculiar bent of his mind towards mathematical speculations does not appear to have been perceived during his childhood; but, in the usual course of education, he showed much facility in the acquisition of knowledge, a remarkably active and inquiring mind, and a very retentive memory. It may, perhaps, be mentioned here, that his father, whom he lost before he was seven years old, used to predict distinction for him; and was so struck with his accurate information and clear memory, that he had pleasure in conversing with him, as with an equal, on subjects of history and geography. In his case, as in many others, ingenuity in little mechanical contrivances seems to have preceded, and indicated the development of a taste for abstract science.

Two years of his life were passed at the Edinburgh Academy; when he left it, being considered too young for the University, he went abroad and spent a winter at a private academy in Geneva. Here his talent for mathematics attracted attention; in geometry, as well as in classical learning, he had already made distinguished progress at Edinburgh.

The following winter he attended classes at the University of Edinburgh, and soon became a favourite pupil of Professor Wallace's, under whose tuition he made great advances in the higher parts of mathematics. The Professor formed the highest hopes of Mr Gregory's future eminence: those who long afterwards saw them together in Cambridge, speak with much interest of the delighted pride he showed in his pupil's success and increasing reputation.

In 1833, Mr Gregory's name was entered at Trinity College in the University of Cambridge, and shortly afterwards he went to reside there. He brought with him a very unusual amount of knowledge on almost all scientific subjects: with Chemistry he was particularly well acquainted, so much so that he had been at Cambridge but a few months when it was proposed to him by one of the most distinguished men in the University to act as assistant to the professor of Chemistry; which for some time he did. Indeed, it is impossible to doubt that, had not other pursuits engaged his attention, he might have achieved a great reputation as a chemist. He was one of the founders of the Chemical Society in Cambridge, and occasionally gave lectures in their rooms.

He had also a very considerable knowledge of botany, and indeed of many subjects which he seemed never to have studied systematically: he possessed in a remarkable degree the power of giving a regular form, and, so to speak, a unity to knowledge acquired in fragments.

All these tastes and habits of thought Mr Gregory cultivated, to a certain extent, during the first years of his residence in Cambridge, of course in subordination to that which was the end principally in view in his becoming a member of the University, namely, the study of mathematics and natural philosophy.

He became a Bachelor of Arts in 1837, having taken high mathematical honours: more, however, might, we may believe, have been effected in this respect, had his activity of mind permitted him to devote himself more exclusively to the prescribed course of study.

From henceforth he felt himself more at liberty to follow original speculations, and, not many months after taking his degree, turned his attention to the general theory of the combination of symbols.

It may be well to say a few words of the history of this part of mathematics.

One of the first results of the differential notation of Leibniz, was the recognition of the analogy of differentials and powers. For instance, it was readily perceived that
dm+ndxm+ny=ddxmddxny\large\frac {d^{m+n}}{dx^{m+n}}\normalsize y = \large \frac{d}{dx}^m \frac{d}{dx}^n\normalsize y,
or, supposing the yy to be understood, that
(ddx)m+n=(ddx)m(ddx)n(\large\frac{d}{dx}\normalsize )^{m+n} = (\large\frac{d}{dx}\normalsize )^{m}(\large\frac{d}{dx}\normalsize )^{n},
just as in ordinary algebra we have, aa being any quantity,
am+n=amana^{m+n} = a^{m}a^{n}
This, and one or two other remarks of the same kind, were sufficient to establish an analogy between ddx\large\frac{d}{dx}\normalsize the symbol of differentiation and the ordinary symbols of algebra. And it was not long afterwards remarked that a corresponding analogy existed between the latter class of symbols and that which is peculiar to the calculus of finite differences. It was inferred from hence that theorems proved to be true of combinations of ordinary symbols of quantity, might be applied by analogy to the differential calculus and to that of finite differences. The meaning and interpretation of such theorems would of course be wholly changed by this kind of transfer from one part of mathematics to another, but their form would remain unchanged. By these considerations many theorems were suggested, of which it was thought almost impossible to obtain direct demonstrations. In this point of view the subject was developed by Lagrange, who left undemonstrated the results to which he was led, intimating, however, that demonstrations were required. Gradually, however, mathematicians came to perceive that the analogy with which they were dealing, involved an essential identity; and thus results, with respect to which, if the expression may be used, it had only been felt that they must be true, were now actually seen to be so. For, if the algebraical theorems by which these results were suggested, were true, because the symbols they involve represented quantities, and such operations as may be performed on quantities, then indeed the analogy would be altogether precarious. But if, as is really the case, these theorems are true, in virtue of certain fundamental laws of combination, which hold both for algebraical symbols, and for those peculiar to the higher branches of mathematics, then each algebraical theorem and its analogue constitute, in fact, only one and the same theorem, except quoad their distinctive interpretations, and therefore a demonstration of either is in reality a demonstration of both. [Note]

The abstract character of these considerations is doubtless the reason why so long a time elapsed before their truth was distinctly perceived. They would almost seem to require, in order that they maybe readily apprehended, a peculiar faculty - a kind of mental disinvoltura which is by no means common.

Mr Gregory, however, possessed it in a very remarkable degree. He at once perceived the truth and the importance of the principles of which we have been speaking, and proceeded to apply them with singular facility and fearlessness.

It had occurred to two or three distinguished writers that the analogy, as it was called, of powers, differentials, etc., might be made available in the solution of differential equations, and of equations in finite differences.

This idea, however, probably from some degree of doubt as to the legitimacy of the methods which it suggested, had not been fully or clearly developed: it seems to have been chiefly employed as affording a convenient way of expressing solutions already obtained by more familiar considerations.

To this branch of the subject Mr Gregory directed his attention, and from the general views of the laws of combination of symbols already noticed, deduced in a regular and systematic form, methods of solution of a large and important class of differential equations (linear equations with constant coefficients, whether ordinary or partial) of systems of such equations existing simultaneously, of the corresponding classes of equations in finite and mixed differences; and lastly, of many functional equations. The steady and unwavering apprehension of the fundamental principle which pervades all these applications of it, gives them a value quite independent of that which arises from the facility of the methods of solution which they suggest.

The investigations of which I have endeavoured to illustrate the character and tendency, appeared from time to time in the Cambridge Mathematical Journal.

In this periodical publication Mr Gregory took much interest. He had been active in establishing it, and continued to be its editor, except for a short interval, from the time of its first appearance in the autumn of 1837, until a few months before his death. For this occupation he was for many reasons well qualified; his acquaintance with mathematical literature was very extensive, while his interest in all subjects connected with it was not only very strong, but also singularly free from the least tinge of jealous or personal feeling. That which another had done or was about to do, seemed to give him as much pleasure as if he himself had been the author of it, and this even when it related to some subject which his own researches might seem to have appropriated.

This trait, as the recollections of those who knew him best will bear me witness, was intimately connected with his whole character, which was in truth an illustration of the remark of a French writer, that to be free from envy is the surest indication of a fine nature.

To the Cambridge Mathematical Journal, Mr Gregory contributed many papers beside those which relate to the researches already noticed. In some of these he developed certain particular applications of the principles he had laid down in an Essay on the Foundations of Algebra, presented to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1838, and printed in the fourteenth volume of their Transactions. I may particularly mention a paper on the curious question of the logarithms of negative quantities, a question which, it is well known, has often been discussed among mathematicians, and which even now does not appear to be entirely settled.

In 1840, Mr Gregory was elected Fellow of Trinity College; in the following year he became Master of Arts, and was appointed to the office of moderator, that is, of principal mathematical examiner. His discharge of the duties of this office (which is looked upon as one of the most honourable of those which are accessible to the younger members of the University) was distinguished by great good sense and discretion.

In the close of the year 1841, Mr Gregory produced his "Collection of Examples of the Processes of the Differential and Integral Calculus;" a work which required, and which manifests much research, and an extensive acquaintance with mathematical writings. He had at first only wished to superintend the publication of a second edition of the work with a similar title, which appeared more than twenty-five years since, and of which Messrs Herschel, Peacock, and Babbage were the authors. Difficulties, however, arose, which prevented the fulfilment of this wish, and it is not perhaps to be regretted that Mr Gregory was thus led to undertake a more original design. It is well known that the earlier work exercised a great and beneficial influence on the studies of the University, nor was it in any way unworthy of the reputation of its authors. The original matter contributed by Sir John Herschel is especially valuable. Nevertheless, the progress which mathematical science has since made, rendered it desirable that another work of the same kind should be produced, in which the more recent improvements of the calculus might be embodied.

Since the beginning of the century, the general aspect of mathematics has greatly changed. A different class of problems from that which chiefly engaged the attention of the great writers of the last age has arisen, and the new requirements of natural philosophy have greatly influenced the progress of pure analysis. The mathematical theories of heat, light, electricity, and magnetism, may be fairly regarded as the achievement of the last fifty years. And in this class of researches an idea is prominent, which comparatively occurs but seldom in purely dynamical enquiries. This is the idea of discontinuity. Thus, for instance, in the theory of heat, the conditions relating to the surface of the body whose variations of temperature we are considering, form an essential and peculiar element of the problem; their peculiarity arises from the discontinuity of the transition from the temperature of the body to that of the space in which it is placed. Similarly, in the undulatory theory of light, there is much difficulty in determining the conditions which belong to the bounding surfaces of any portion of ether; and although this difficulty has, in the ordinary applications of the theory, been avoided by the introduction of proximate principles, it cannot be said to have been got rid of.

The power, therefore, of symbolising discontinuity, if such an expression may be permitted, is essential to the progress of the more recent applications of mathematics to natural philosophy, and it is well known that this power is intimately connected with the theory of definite integrals. Hence the principal importance of this theory, which was altogether passed over in the earlier collection of examples.

Mr Gregory devoted to it a chapter of his work, and noticed particularly some of the more remarkable applications of definite integrals to the expression of the solutions of partial differential equations. It is not improbable that in another edition he would have developed this subject at somewhat greater length. He had long been an admirer of Fourier's great work on heat, to which this part of mathematics owes so much; and once, while turning over its pages, remarked to the writer, "All these things seem to me to be a kind of mathematical paradise."

In 1841, the mathematical Professorship at Toronto was offered to Mr Gregory: this, however, circumstances induced him to decline. Some years previously he had been a candidate for the Mathematical Chair at Edinburgh.

His year of office as moderator ended in October 1842. In the University Examination for Mathematical Honours in the following January, he, however, in accordance with the usual routine, took a share, with the title of examiner, a position little less important, and very nearly as laborious, as that of moderator. Besides these engagements in the University, he had been for two or three years actively employed in lecturing and examining in the College of which he was a Fellow. In the fulfilment of these duties, he showed an earnest and constant desire for the improvement of his pupils, and his own love of science tended to diffuse a taste for it among the better order of students. He had for some time meditated a work on Finite Differences, and had commenced a treatise on Solid Geometry, which, unhappily, he did not live to complete. In the midst of these various occupations, he felt the earliest approaches of the malady which terminated his life.

The first attack of illness occurred towards the close of 1842. It was succeeded by others, and in the spring of 1843, he left Cambridge never to return again. He had just before taken part in a college examination, and notwithstanding severe suffering, had gone through the irksome labour of examining with patient energy and undiminished interest.

Many months followed of almost constant pain. Whenever an interval of tolerable ease occurred, he continued to interest himself in the pursuits to which he had been so long devoted; he went on with the work on Geometry, and, but a little while before his death, commenced a paper on the analogy of differential equations and those in finite differences. This analogy it is known that he had developed to a great length; unfortunately, only a portion of his views on the subject can now be ascertained.

At length, on the 23rd February 1844, after sufferings, on which, notwithstanding the admirable patience with which they were borne, it would be painful to dwell, his illness terminated in death. He had been for a short time aware that the end was at hand, and, with an unclouded mind, he prepared himself calmly and humbly for the great change; receiving and giving comfort and support from the thankful hope that the close of his suffering life here, was to be the beginning of an endless existence of rest and happiness in another world. He retained to the last, when he knew that his own connection with earthly things was soon to cease, the unselfish interest which he had ever felt in the pursuits and happiness of those he loved.

A few words may be allowed about a character where rare and sterling qualities were combined. His upright, sincere, and honourable nature secured to him general respect. By his intimate friends, he was admired for the extent and variety of his information, always communicated readily, but without a thought of display, for his refinement and delicacy of taste and feeling, for his conversational powers and playful wit; and he was beloved by them for his generous, amiable disposition, his active and disinterested kindness, and steady affection. And in this manner his high-toned character acquired a moral influence over his contemporaries and juniors, in a degree remarkable in one so early removed.

To this brief history, little more is to be added; for though it is impossible not to indulge in speculations as to all that Mr Gregory might have done in the cause of science and for his own reputation, had his life been prolonged, yet such speculations are necessarily too vague to find a place here; and even were it not so, it would perhaps be unwise to enter on a subject so full of sources of unavailing regret.

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