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James Joseph Sylvester: Jewish Mathematician in a Victorian World

Karen Hunger Parshall
Johns Hopkins University Press
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The Basic Library List Committee recommends this book for acquisition by undergraduate mathematics libraries.

[Reviewed by
David M. Bressoud
, on

This is the definitive biography of James Joseph Sylvester by the unquestionable authority on this man and his mathematics. He was a fascinating character who led a full and varied life, and Karen Parshall has dug deep into the archives to find those insightful facts that illuminate who he was and what drove him. As the subtitle suggests, this is more than a biography of Sylvester. This is also an account of the world in which he struggled to build a career as a professional mathematician.

When Sylvester was born in 1814, such a profession did not exist. There was the Savilian chair at Oxford and the Lucasian chair at Cambridge, but two positions do not constitute a profession. Even these chairs were viewed as lectureships. The pursuit and publication of original research was not a requirement. And, of course, these positions were closed to anyone who was not of the Church of England.

The fact that Sylvester was Jewish was an impediment. Though he came second wrangler at Cambridge, his religion made him ineligible for a degree. Through perseverance, he obtained an academic position at the newly established University College London. It was the start of a succession of positions: at the young University of Virginia, at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, at The Johns Hopkins University. He capped his career with the Savilian chair in Geometry at Oxford, becoming the first Jewish professor at Oxford or Cambridge. Between Virginia and Woolwich, Sylvester worked as an actuary, studied law, and passed the bar. Throughout his career, he sought time to pursue mathematics and campaigned for the creation of a mathematics profession as we know it today. What existed at that time were teaching professorships that, to one degree or another, tolerated research. He fought to have success in mathematics research celebrated and rewarded, with time allotted for its pursuit. He was able to realize his vision at The Johns Hopkins University, creating a template for the United States that would be applied across the country.

Karen Parshall has done an excellent job of describing the context of Sylvester’s life: the issues confronting the upper middle class Jewish community in England at the opening of the 19th century, the maneuvering needed to obtain academic employment, the chaotic early years of the University of Virginia, the difficulties facing a fledgling life insurance industry, the political infighting that surrounded Woolwich especially following the disaster of the Crimean War, the challenges that Daniel Gilman had to overcome as he struggled to create a great university in Baltimore. This book gives a picture not just of a man, but of an era, the era from which arose our modern conception of the professional mathematician.

David M. Bressoud is DeWitt Wallace Professor Mathematics at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.

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