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Abraham De Moivre: Setting the Stage for Classical Probability and Its Applications

David R. Bellhouse
Chapman & Hall/CRC
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
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The Basic Library List Committee suggests that undergraduate mathematics libraries consider this book for acquisition.

[Reviewed by
Mark Bollman
, on

For those of us who know Abraham De Moivre’s name only or largely through his theorem for powers of a complex number, [r(cos x + I sin x)]n = rn (cos nx + I sin nx), and perhaps some vague notion that he had “something to do with probability”, this book will come as a revelation. In telling the story of De Moivre’s life, the book traces a path through some of the most significant mathematical developments of the 17th and 18th centuries, and his name looms large in many aspects of the field.

In the process of detailing De Moivre’s life, the author takes us through the Newton vs. Leibniz calculus controversy, which De Moivre observed from England as he found his work in probability enhanced by this new mathematics. De Moivre’s brief service on the Royal Society’s committee investigating the origins of calculus and Newton’s claim to priority in its discovery is noted (p. 89).

While significant in the history of mathematics, this service was a mere diversion for De Moivre in his work on probability, and the story of his life moves on to focus on The Doctrine of Chances, and Annuities Upon Lives. In these works, De Moivre’s focus moved from pure to applied mathematics, and he was influenced by several of the other leading mathematicians of the day. As a result, this biography tells a lot of the history of mathematics in the 18th century as it influenced, and was influenced by, its subject.

Mark Bollman ( is associate professor of mathematics at Albion College in Michigan. His mathematical interests include number theory, probability, and geometry. His claim to be the only Project NExT fellow (Forest dot, 2002) who has taught both English composition and organic chemistry to college students has not, to his knowledge, been successfully contradicted. If it ever is, he is sure that his experience teaching introductory geology will break the deadlock.

Early Life in France

Points of Connection

Getting Established in England

Scotica Mathematica

The Breakthrough: De Mensura Sortis

A Newtonian Intermezzo

Miscellanea Mathematica

The Doctrine of Chances and the Doctrine Disputed

Doctrinal Dissemination and Further Development

De Moivre as Teacher

Life Annuities

The Decade of the Doctrine Enhanced

The Two Thomases

Old Age