Cambridge professorships

Cambridge has a number of ancient professorships listed below. The dates of office tend to differ in the sources.


The Lucasian professorship is the oldest mathematical chair at Cambridge, founded by Henry Lucas in 1663. Holders have been: Isaac Barrow (1663-1669); Isaac Newton (1669-1702); William Whiston (1702-1710), best known for his translation of Flavius Josephus' historical writings and for being expelled for heresy, but who also popularised Newton's work; Nicolas Saunderson (1711-1739), famous for overcoming the apparent handicap of blindness; John Colson (1739-1760) who invented negative digits; Edward Waring (1760-1798) of Waring's problem; Isaac Milner (1798-1820) who gave no lectures; Robert Woodhouse (1820-1822) who wrote the first English calculus using Leibniz's notation and a book on the history of the calculus of variations; Thomas Turton (1822-1826); G. B. Airy (1826-1828); Charles Babbage (1828-1839) who never gave a lecture; Joshua King (1839-1849); G. G. Stokes (1849-1903); Joseph Larmor (1903-1932); Paul Dirac (1932-1969); Michael Lighthill (1969-1979); Stephen Hawking (1979- ). Notes on most of these are given in Cambridge individuals.


The Plumian Professor of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy has often been of mathematical interest. It was founded in 1704 by Thomas Plume. Notable holders of the Plumian chair have been: Roger Cotes (first holder, 1707-1716); Robert Smith (1716-1760); Robert Woodhouse (1822-1828); G. B. Airy (1828-1836); James Challis (1836-1883); G. H. Darwin (1883-1912); A. S. Eddington (1913-1944); G. V. Jeffreys (1946-1958); M. J. Rees (1973-1992); R. S. Ellis (as of 1995).


Another Cambridge chair of relevance is the Lowndean chair of astronomy and geometry, founded by Thomas Lowndes in 1749. Holders include: Roger Long (1749- 1770); George Peacock (1836-1858, but he ceased to lecture after becoming Dean of Ely in 1839); John Couch Adams (1858-1892); R. S. Ball (1892-1913); H. F. Baker (1914-1936); W. V. D. Hodge (1936-1970); J. F. Adams (1970-1988).


In her will of 1701, Lady Sadleir endowed a number of lectureships on algebra. These were reformed into the Sadleirian chair of mathematics in 1860 and the holder has generally been a Trinity man. The holders have been: Arthur Cayley (1863-1895), for whom the Chair was re-established; A. R. Forsyth (1895-1910); E. W. Hobson (1910-1931); G. H. Hardy (1931-1942); L. J. Mordell (1945-1953); Philip Hall (1953-1967); J. W. S. Cassels (1967?-1986?); J. H. Coates (1986- ).


The Cavendish Laboratory in Free School Lane (plaque) was the world's major physics laboratory from its founding in c. 1870. In 1868, a committee had recommended establishment of such a laboratory and a chair. The Chancellor of the University, the Duke of Devonshire, who had been first wrangler and first Smith's prizeman, donated the funds in memory of his great-uncle Henry Cavendish. Clerk Maxwell was elected to the Professorship in March 1871. The building was completed and formally presented to the University on 16 Jun 1874. The Duke also provided funds for the necessary apparatus during the following years. The Laboratory has recently moved to a new site in Madingley Road west of the town. (Such a professorship might well have been founded a generation earlier, but William Whewell asserted that it was not appropriate for a university to teach a subject which had not yet reached its permanent form!)

Cavendish professors have been: J. C. Maxwell (1871-1879); Lord Rayleigh (1879-1884); J. J. Thomson (1884-1919, who was only 28 when nominated by Rayleigh(??) and elected by Kelvin, Stokes and G. H. Darwin); Ernest Rutherford (1919-1937); W. L. Bragg (1938-1953); N. Mott (1953-1971); Sam Edwards (??). Maxwell investigated electrical standards here, assisted by R. T. Glazebrook. William Garnett (1850-1932) was assistant to Maxwell from 1873 and had hoped to succeed him. Glazebrook was Assistant Director in 1891-1899, then he became the first director of the National Physical Laboratory, and this work went there with him. Maxwell produced his Treatise on electricity and magnetism (1873) and The electrical researches of the Honourable Henry Cavendish (1879) while here. Rutherford was a graduate student here, 1895-1898; he demonstrated wireless telegraphy over half a mile in 1895, but Kelvin said it would never be of any use except for communicating with lightships and advised him to concentrate on atoms. Thomson 'discovered' the electron here in 1897. W. L. Bragg was a student from 1911. Rutherford demonstrated artificial transmutation here in 1919: 14N + 4He ⟷ 1H + 17O and coined the word 'proton' in 1920.

Other notable workers here include: Appleton; Aston (who developed the mass spectrometer here in 1913, producing the first separation of isotopes in 1919 and soon began discovering a new isotope every week); Bernal; Blackett; Bohr; Chadwick (who discovered the neutron here in 1932); Chandrasekhar; Chrystal; Cockcroft; J. A. Fleming; Fowler; Frisch; Glazebrook; Hartree; Kapitza (1921-1934); Oppenheimer (c1925, discovering he wasn't an experimentalist); Perutz; Ryle; Schuster (1876-1881); G. I. Taylor; Walton; C. T. R. Wilson.

The Laboratory has: the plates of Maxwell's first colour photograph of 1861; zoetrope strips painted by Maxwell; Maxwell's diabolo (which he was fond of playing with); J. J. Thomson's apparatus for 'discovering' the electron; Wilson's original cloud chamber of 1911 which 'photographed' the electron; Chadwick's 1932 neutron chamber. In 1929, Walter Gamow came and showed that Schrodinger's equations explained how an alpha particle could escape from a nucleus and how nuclei might be split. Cockcroft and Walton recognised the possibilities and started building an appropriate accelerator to bombard lithium with protons, hoping to see two alpha particles. On 13 Apr 1932, Walton was testing the accelerator and unexpectedly saw alpha particles, which were rapidly confirmed by Cockcroft and Rutherford. Crick and Watson discovered the structure of DNA here in 1953 (Nobel Prize, 1962). The northern part of the Cavendish site is the Rayleigh Wing. A new lecture theatre in the old Cavendish site is named for Babbage. In the back (east side) of the site, facing Corn Exchange Street, is the Computer Laboratory. I believe EDSAC was built here, but I am not certain.


The Jacksonian Professorship of Natural Philosophy has been held by: Dewar (1875-1923, though he was also at the Royal Institution from 1877); Otto Frisch (??-1979).

Five University Lectureships in Mathematics were created in 1882 and additional ones sometimes existed. Many of the holders have been notable, so I give a list of c1914 which I found in the Ball Albums at Trinity Library. J. J. Thomson (1884); A. R. Forsyth (1884-1895); W. H. Macaulay (1884-1898); R. T. Glazebrook (1884-1898); E. H. Hobson (1884-1910); Joseph Larmor (1885-1903); Pendlebury (1888-1901); H. F. Baker (1895-1914); A. E. H. Love (1898-1899); H. M. Macdonald (1899-1904); H. W. Richmond (1901-??); G. M. Matthews (1903-1905); J. H. Jeans (1904-1906 & 1910-1912); J. G. Leathem (1905-1909); R. A. Herman (1906-??); Whittaker (1905-1906); A. E. L. Bromwich (1906-??); J. H. Grace (1910-??); G. H. Hardy (1914-??); A. Berry (1914-??). I have references to these, or one of them, being known as the Cayley lectureships -- The Cayley Lectureship has been held by several notable mathematicians, including: H. F. Baker (1895-1914); G. H. Hardy (1914-1920); J. E. Littlewood (1920-1928).

Rouse Ball

The Rouse Ball Professorship was founded in 1928 by a bequest from Rouse Ball. Occupants have been: J. E. Littlewood (1928-1950); Besicovitch (1950-1958); Harold Davenport (1958-1969); J. G. Thompson (1971-1993).


The Plummer Professorship of Mathematical Physics started in 1932 and has had some holders of mathematical interest: Fowler (1932-1944); Douglas Hartree (1946-????); Sam Edwards (1972-??).

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