Extracts from Thomas Hirst's diary

Below are quotations from Thomas Hirst's journals concerning mathematicians whose biographies are given in this archive. The dates given refer to the date of his journal entry (where known).


De Morgan


Joseph Bertrand:
  1. (1858) With respect to Bertrand I am still in doubt whether his harsh, forbidding, arrogant exterior is a true index of his character or merely a cloak to a better nature. To me it is extremely disgusting, the air he assumes. His manner to me appears to repel you by the announcement "what you are telling me may interest you, but as to me I knew it all before and much more - in fact with respect to mathematics I am decidedly blasé, I may be said to have utterly exhausted that elementary science."
  2. (16 May 1864) I had much more conversation with Bertrand than ever before. I remember that I had once a little prejudice against him. His manner I thought a little pretentious and forbidding. I begin to find that this is merely external, the man is kind at heart, extremely clever and full of ésprit.

George Boole:
  1. (4 Oct 1862) I was much pleased with Boole. ... Immediately after breakfast I stepped up to him and introduced myself. The same day we sat together at the Hall dinner and had some pleasant chat. Evidently an earnest able and at the same time a genial man.

Francesco Brioschi:
  1. (23 June 1859) [Brioschi] is beyond doubt the ablest mathematician of Italy. He is a rather tall slightly built man with an intelligent earnest face, dark hair and beard and good high forehead, eyes of dark brown in a clear field somewhat sunk but exceedingly intelligent and penetrating ...

Arthur Cayley:
  1. [He is] a thin weak-looking individual with a large head and face marked with small-pox: he speaks with difficulty and stutters slightly.
  2. (23 Dec 1859) What a wonderful head he has, not merely round but spheroidal with the largest diameter parallel to his eyes, or rather to the line joining his ears. He never sits upright on his chair but with his posterior on the very edge he leans one elbow on the seat of the chair and throws the other arm over the back. Yet he is a keen sighted and extraordinary man, gentle I think by nature and at once timid, modest and reticent. Often when he speaks he shuts his eyes and talks as if he were reading from some unseen book, and talks well too so that one has to sharpen one's own wits to follow.

Michel Chasles:
  1. (18 Nov 1857) I went to hear Chasles' first lecture on geometry, and was far from satisfied with it. Perhaps he was in a bad humour - certainly he did not enter with his whole might into his subject. He hesitated and bungled much, and altogether his lecture formed a sad contrast to his books which are remarkably clearly written.

Pafnuty Chebyshev:
  1. (16 May 1864) Chebyshev called on me and left me some of his papers. He is evidently a good natured man, he has a stuttering way of speaking French and is lame.

Luigi Cremona:
  1. (30 June 1859) [Cremona] is a young man, a pupil of Brioschi's, married and has a family. He is short and has a bullet shaped bald head. Our conversation was first of all political and then mathematical; it never flagged and we parted good friends.
  2. (5 June 1864) [Cremona] had a class of about 12 and lectured on the theory of the sundial in connection with his descriptive geometry. He is evidently a good lecturer; everything was explained in perfect clearness. One peculiarity of the lecture arrangements was that instead of a blackboard on the side of the room the top of the table before the professor was of slate and on it he wrote and made figures in chalk. The figures were of course inverted for the audience.

Augustus De Morgan:
  1. (15 June 1862) [De Morgan] had no better remark to make than "How did you come across that Problem?" There was such an immense variety of similar questions. It was a kind of pooh pooh in fact. I felt angry with myself at having taken him even so much into my confidence. I ought to have felt that interest would not be reciprocal. A dry dogmatic pedant I fear is Mr De Morgan, notwithstanding his unquestioned ability.

Lejeune Dirichlet:
  1. (13 Oct 1852) He is a rather tall, lanky-looking man, with moustache and beard about to turn grey with a somewhat harsh voice and rather deaf: it was early, he was unwashed, and unshaven (what of him required shaving), with his "schlafrock", slippers, cup of coffee and cigar. ... I thought, as we sat each at the end of the sofa, and the smoke of our cigars carried question and answer to and fro, and intermingled in graceful curves before it rose to the ceiling and mixed with the common atmospheric air, "If all be well, we will smoke our friendly cigar together many a time yet, good-natured Lejeune Dirichlet".
  2. (31 Oct 1852) Dirichlet cannot be surpassed for richness of material and clear insight into it: as a speaker he has no advantages - there is nothing like fluency about him, and yet an eye and understanding make it indispensable: without an effort you would not notice his hesitating speech. What is peculiar in him, he never sees his audience - when he does not use the black-board at which time his back is turned to us, he sits at the high desk facing us, puts his spectacles up on his forehead, leans his head on both hands, and keeps his eyes, when not covered with his hands, mostly shut. He uses no notes, inside his hands he sees an imaginary calculation, and reads it out to us - that we understand it as well as if we saw it too. I like that kind of lecturing.
  3. (20 Feb 1853) Dirichlet has ... his peculiarities - one is forgetting time; he pulls his watch out, finds it past three, and runs out without even finishing the sentence.

Carl Friedrich Gauss:
  1. (12 Aug 1852) Personally he is a venerable, fine old fellow, with a contented manly expression. There is an extraordinary aspect of power about him and his every word: without effort he suggests to everyone the presence of a manly might. He is about 80 years of age, but not a trace of superannuation is to be seen about him. He can even read without spectacles.

Sofia Kovalevskaya:
  1. (27 July 1869) I attended Königsberger's lecture on the theory of determinants. He introduced me to a young Russian lady [Sofia Kovalevskaya] who attends his lectures and is at home in elliptic functions. She belongs to the mathematically gifted family of Schuberts. She is pretty and exceedingly modest.

Joseph Liouville:
  1. (18 Nov 1857) He is a pleasant, chatty little man with whom I soon felt at perfect ease. The only blemish I observed in him was an occasional unmeaning giggle.
  2. (18 May 1879) A little shrivelled gouty old man [Liouville] has become and very garrulous. It was with difficulty I broke away from him.

James Clerk Maxwell:
  1. (24 March 1861) [Maxwell is] talkative with a Scotch brogue.

Louis Poinsot:
  1. (20 Dec 1857) [Poinsot] shook me kindly by the hand, bid me be seated, and took his seat near me. He is now between 60 and 70 years old, with silver silken hair neatly arranged on a fine intelligent head. He is tall and this, but although he now stoops with age and feebleness one can see that one time his figure was more than ordinarily graceful. He was loosely but neatly dressed in a large ample robe de chambre. His features are finely moulded - indeed everything about the man betokens good blood. He talks incessantly and well. I did not misunderstand a word, although he spoke always in a low tone, and now and then his voice dropped as if from weariness, but he never wandered from his point ...

Jakob Steiner:
  1. (25 Oct 1852) He is a middle-aged man, of pretty stout proportions, has a long intellectual face, with beard and moustache and a fine prominent forehead, hair dark rather inclining to turn grey. The first thing that strikes you on his face is a dash of care and anxiety, almost pain, as if arising from physical suffering - he has rheumatism.
  2. (7 Nov 1852) Steiner, naturally of a testy disposition, which has been increased, too, by bodily illness, feels himself slighted that he has been 33 years extraordinary professor. The reason is clear: firstly he does not know Latin, and that among German professors is held as a necessity; secondly he is so terribly one-sided on the question of synthetic geometry that as an examiner he would not be liked.
  3. (20 Feb 1853) He never prepares [his lectures] beforehand. He thus often stumbles or fails to prove what he wishes at the moment, and at every such failure he is sure to make some characteristic remark.

James Joseph Sylvester:
  1. (16 Oct 1859) On Monday having received a letter from Sylvester I went to see him at the Athenaeum Club. We had an hour's talk in the little waiting room. He talked continuously for that time about his partitions of numbers and strange to say he was less obscure than I expected. He was, moreover, excessively friendly, wished we lived together, asked me to go live with him at Woolwich and so forth. In short he was eccentrically affectionate ...
  2. (10 Oct 1872) Sylvester's animus against me was disagreeably manifest. It has lasted now for years and the cause of it is just as unknown to me as it was on its first appearance.
  3. (25 May 1875) [Sylvester] voluntarily shook hands with me, and thus at last there is a kind of reconciliation between us. I am very glad of it, though I have learned to my sorrow that our former intimacy can never be renewed. What the exact cause of our original estrangement was I never knew, but I do know that he suspected me most unjustly of incessantly plotting to undermine his influence in the scientific and mathematical circles. He misconstrued ever act and word of mine to such an extent that intercourse was impossible.

William Thomson (Lord Kelvin):
  1. (7 June 1863) I have attended Thomson's two lectures at the Royal Institution on the electric telegraph. More random unsatisfactory lectures I never listened to.
  2. (15 June 1863) It was the first time I had been introduced to Thomson. I cannot say that we suited one another very well or exchanged many words. He was civil and spoke flatteringly of my papers.

Wilhelm Weber:
  1. (Aug 1852) [He is] a curious little fellow [who] speaks in a shrill, unpleasant and hesitating voice.
  2. (6 Aug 1852) He speaks and stutters on unceasingly, one has nothing to do but listen. Sometimes he laughs for no earthly reason, and one feels sorry at being not able to join him.

Written by J J O'Connor and E F Robertson
Last Update October 2000