Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Trotter, Coutts

TROTTER, COUTTS (1837–1887), vice-master of Trinity College, Cambridge, born on 1 Aug. 1837, was son of Alexander Trotter (younger brother of Admiral Henry Dundas Trotter [q. v.]) and of his wife Jacqueline, daughter of William Otter [q. v.], bishop of Chichester. Educated at Harrow, he entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1855, graduated B.A. as thirty-sixth wrangler in 1859, and proceeded M.A. in 1862. He was elected a fellow of his college in 1861. In 1863 he was ordained to a curacy in Kidderminster, which he served for two years. He next went to Germany to study experimental physics under Helmholtz and Kirchoff, and, after spending some time in Italy, returned to Trinity College, where in 1869 he was appointed lecturer in physical science, a post which he held until 1884. He became junior dean in 1870, and senior dean in 1874. He was tutor of his college from 1872 to 1882, and was appointed its vice-master in 1885. From 1874 onwards he was a member of the council of the senate of the university, and at the time of his death was president of the Cambridge Philosophical Society, and vice-president of the council of Newnham College.

Trotter exerted a very remarkable influence in the affairs of the university of Cambridge, especially in connection with the constitutional changes brought about by the statutes of 1882 and in relation to natural science. This influence had for its basis his very wide and exact knowledge of, and his warm sympathy with, almost every branch of learning studied in the university. Not only with every one of the natural sciences, but with the ancient and modern tongues, with history, philosophy, and art, he had an acquaintance, always real, and in some cases great. Hence in the conflicts taking place in the university between the competing demands of the several branches of learning, the advocates of almost every branch felt that they could appeal to Trotter as to one who could understand and sympathise with their wants. This exceptionally large knowledge was made still further effective by being joined to eminently truthful and straightforward conduct, an unusually patient sweet temper, and a singular skill in framing academic regulations. Qualities such as these were greatly needed both in preparing for and in carrying out the changes formulated by the statutes of 1882, and especially, perhaps, in adjusting the growing claims of natural science. The greater part of Trotter's time and energy was devoted to university administration; and to him, more than to any other single person, were due the indubitable improvements effected in university matters during his short academic career.

Trotter died unmarried in Trinity College on 4 Dec. 1887. He left the most valuable part of his library, together with a large bequest in money, to Trinity College, and the remainder of his library and his entire collection of philosophical instruments to Newnham College.

[Private information; obituary notices in Cambridge University Almanack and Reg. 1888, Saturday Review 10 Dec. 1887, Nature 15 Dec. 1887, Cambridge Review 7 Dec. 1887, 1 and 8 Feb. 1888, reprinted in ‘Coutts Trotter: In Memoriam,’ Cambridge, 1888.]

M. F.