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Hopkins, William (1793-1866) (DNB00)


HOPKINS, WILLIAM (1793–1866), mathematician and geologist, born 2 Feb. 1793 at Kingston in Derbyshire, was the only son of William Hopkins, a gentleman farmer. After spending some time in Norfolk, learning practical farming, his father bought for him a small property near Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk, which he attempted to farm, but without success. The occupation had always been uncongenial, and after the death of his first wife, a Miss Braithwaite, Hopkins sold the farm to pay his debts, and made a fresh start in life by entering himself in 1822, when in his thirtieth year, at Peterhouse, Cambridge.

Graduating seventh wrangler in 1827, when De Morgan was fourth, Hopkins settled in Cambridge as a private tutor, having married his second wife, Caroline Boys, while an undergraduate. His success as a mathematical teacher was so remarkable that he soon became known as the ‘senior wrangler maker,’ and in 1849, according to Mr. Rouse Ball, ‘he was able to say that he had had among his pupils nearly two hundred wranglers, of whom seventeen had been senior and forty-four in one of the first three places.’ Although so successful in this respect, he was conspicuous for encouraging in his pupils a disinterested love of their studies, instead of limiting their aspirations to examination honours. He formed a select class of those who had shown in their first year promise of becoming high wranglers. Among his pupils were Professors Stokes, Sir W. Thomson, Tait, Fawcett, James Clerk-Maxwell, and Todhunter. Fawcett was a favourite pupil, and when he became blind in 1858, was first roused to resolute acceptance of his position by a letter of manly advice from Hopkins.

Chosen senior esquire bedell of the university in 1827, Hopkins proceeded M.A. in 1830. He was appointed in 1835 and again in 1837 a syndic for building the Fitzwilliam Museum.

About 1833 Hopkins acquired through Professor Sedgwick a taste for geology, and afterwards devoted much of his time to the physical theories of the science, applying mathematical methods to test them, and in certain cases suggesting important modifications of accepted views. In 1850 he received the Wollaston medal for his researches on the application of mathematics to physics and geology, and in the following year he was elected president of the Geological Society. He became president of the British Association in 1853, then held at Hull, and in his address referred to a series of important experiments which he had instituted at Manchester, with the advice of Sir William Thomson and the assistance of Messrs. Joule and Fairbairn, to determine the temperature of melting of substances under great pressure. These were connected with his speculations on the interior of the earth. He concluded that the conducting power of the strata, or the temperature at which they melt, increases considerably with their depth. Hopkins also applied the astronomical phenomena of ‘precession of the equinoxes’ to test whether the interior of the earth is solid or molten.

Hopkins died at Cambridge 13 Oct. 1866, in his seventy-fourth year. He was a man of marked dignity of character and most affectionate nature. He took a keen pleasure in poetry and music, had great conversational power, and his sense of natural beauty led to his taking up, not unsuccessfully, landscape-painting late in life as a recreation. By his second marriage Hopkins left one son and three daughters. After his death the Cambridge Philosophical Society founded a prize in his honour (first awarded in 1867 and triennially since) ‘for the best original memoir, invention, or discovery in connection with mathematico-physical or mathematico-experimental science.’ Hitherto ‘only the very best mathematicians,’ writes Dr. Routh, ‘have had this prize awarded to them.’

Hopkins published: 1. ‘Elements of Trigonometry,’ London, 1833, containing a good historical sketch of that branch of mathematics. 2. ‘Abstract of a Memoir on Physical Geology,’ Cambridge, 1836, an attempt to explain dislocations by estimating the ‘effects of an elevatory force acting at every point beneath extensive portions of the earth's crust.’ 3. ‘Investigation of Effects of the Sun's and Moon's Attraction according as the earth is solid, or a fluid surrounded by a rigid shell;’ before the Royal Society, and again with additions before the British Association in 1847, in a report on the geological theories of elevation and of earthquakes. 4. ‘Researches in Physical Geology,’ ‘Philosophical Transactions’ for 1839 and 1840. 5. ‘Theoretical Investigations on the Motion of Glaciers,’ Cambridge, 1842. 6. ‘Transport of Erratic Blocks,’ ‘Transactions of Cambridge Philosophical Society,’ vol. viii. pt. ii., 1844. 7. Address as president of the Geological Society, mainly occupied with drift accumulations in relation to the theories of transport of glaciers and floating ice, London, 1852. 8. ‘Geology,’ a paper setting forth clearly the primary principles of speculative geology in ‘Cambridge Essays,’ 1857.

For his other papers see ‘Geological Society's Journal,’ iv. 70, viii. 20; ‘Transactions,’ vii. 1; ‘Proceedings,’ iii. 363; ‘Fraser's Magazine,’ 1863.

There is a painting of Hopkins in the hall of Peterhouse, Cambridge.

[Quart. Journ. Geol. Soc. xxiii. p. xxix, &c.; Gent. Mag. 1866; Bury Post, October 1866; Times, October 1866; private information; Abstr. Phil. Trans. vi. 347; Admiralty Manual of Scientific Inquiry, p. 283 n.; Nichols's Cycl. pp. 225, 830; L. Stephen's Life of Henry Fawcett, pp. 24, 26, 27, 48–51, 99; Clark and Hughes's Life of Sedgwick, ii. 74, 154, 323.]

R. E. A.