Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Spottiswoode, William

SPOTTISWOODE, WILLIAM (1825–1883), mathematician and physicist, and president of the Royal Society, born in London on 11 Jan. 1825, was son of Andrew Spottiswoode, sometime member of parliament for Colchester and partner in the firm of Eyre & Spottiswoode, queen's printers. The family was that to which John Spottiswood (1565–1637) [q. v.], archbishop of St. Andrews, belonged (see Genealogy of the Spotswood Family, by C. Campbell Albany, 1868). His mother was Mary, eldest daughter of Thomas Norton Longman, the publisher [see under Longman, Thomas]. William passed from a school at Laleham to Eton, and thence to Harrow, where in 1842 he obtained a Lyon scholarship. Proceeding to Balliol College, Oxford, in 1842, he graduated there B.A. in 1845 with a first class in mathematics. In 1846 he gained the senior university and in 1847 the Johnson's mathematical scholarship. In 1846 he succeeded his father as queen's printer. In 1856 he travelled in eastern Russia, and published next year ‘A Tarantasse Journey through Eastern Russia in the Autumn of 1856,’ London, 1857. In 1860 he visited Croatia and Hungary.

Meanwhile he was pursuing the mathematical studies which had first attracted him at the university, and in 1847 he issued ‘Meditationes Analyticæ,’ his earliest scientific publication. From the first he showed ‘an extraordinary liking for, and great skill in, what might be called the morphology of mathematics’ (Rev. Prof. Price, master of Pembroke College, Oxford). His mathematical work was described as ‘the incarnation of symmetry.’ Besides supplying new proofs by elegant methods of known theorems, he did abundance of important original work. His series of memoirs on the contact of curves and surfaces, contributed to the ‘Philosophical Transactions’ of 1862 and subsequent years, mainly gave him his high rank as a mathematician. He was also the author in 1851 of the first elementary treatise on determinants, and to his treatise much of the rapid development of that subject is attributable. In 1865 he was president of the mathematical section of the British Association. In 1871 he turned his attention to experimental physical science. At first he devoted his researches to the polarisation of light; subsequently he studied the electrical discharge in rarefied gases. On these subjects he lectured to crowded audiences at the Royal Institution, at the South Kensington College of Science, and the British Association. His lectures were ‘characterised by a remarkable clearness of exposition, and by a depth of poetic feeling which excited much surprise among those who knew of him only as an abstruse mathematician’ (Proc. Roy. Soc.)

Spottiswoode was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1853, treasurer in 1871, and president on 30 Nov. 1878. He remained president till his death nearly five years later. He was awarded the honorary degrees of LL.D. at Cambridge, Dublin, and Edinburgh, and D.C.L. at Oxford, and became a correspondent of the Institut de France (Académie des Sciences) after a sharp contest with M. Borchardt in 1876. He was president of the London Mathematical Society 1870–2. In August 1878 he filled the presidential chair at the meeting of the British Association, which was held at Dublin. His inaugural address described the growth of mechanical invention as applied to mathematics.

He died of typhoid fever on 27 June 1883, while still president of the Royal Society, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. His successor in the presidential chair, Professor Huxley, compared him in character to Chaucer's ‘verray perfight gentil knight’ (Proc. Roy. Soc. xxxvi. 60). A portrait of him, by the Hon. John Collier, hangs in the meeting-room of the Royal Society; another, by Mr. G. F. Watts, R.A., belongs to the family. In 1861 he married the eldest daughter of William Urquhart Arbuthnot, member of the Council for India.

Spottiswoode was not only a mathematician and physicist of eminent capacity, but an accomplished linguist, possessing a remarkable knowledge of both European and Oriental languages. His scientific publications were: ‘Meditationes Analyticæ,’ 4to, London, 1847; ‘Elementary Theorems relating to Determinants,’ 4to, London, 1851 (a second and enlarged edition appeared in ‘Crelle's Journal,’ 1856, vol. li.); ‘The Polarisation of Light’ (Nature Series), 1874; ‘Polarised Light’ (vol. ii. of ‘Science Lectures,’ published by the Science and Art Department), 8vo, 1879; ‘A Lecture on the Electrical Discharge, its Form and Functions,’ 8vo, London, 1881; and ninety-nine scientific memoirs in various journals, enumerated in the Royal Society's ‘Catalogue of Scientific Papers,’ vols. i–xi.

[Proceedings Roy. Soc. xxxviii. p. xxxiv; Nature, xxvii. 597; art. in Encyclop. Brit.; Times, 28 June 1883.]

H. R.