Oxford professorships

The Savilian Professorships of Geometry and Astronomy (founded by Henry Savile, Warden of Merton College, in 1619) and the Sedleian Professorship of Natural Philosophy (1618 or 1621) (now devoted to mathematics) are the most interesting for us. Savile is said to have been distressed by the status of the parallel postulate and unable to resolve it, so he founded the Savilian Chair of Geometry in the hope that one of the holders would be able to succeed [Webster]. The Savilian Professorship is the third oldest mathematical chair in the UK, following the Gresham Professorship of 1575/1597 and the Edinburgh chair in 1583. Henry Briggs was the first holder of the Gresham and Savilian chairs. From 1854, the Savilian Professorships have been attached to New College.

Savilian Professors of Geometry
Notable holders have been: Briggs (1619-1630); Wallis (1649-1703); Halley (1704-1742); Bliss (1742-1764); Stephen Peter Rigaud (1810-1827); Rev. Baden Powell (1827-1860, father of the Scout, who adopted the surname of Baden-Powell); H. J. S. Smith (1861-1883, elected in preference to Boole); Sylvester (1883-1894); Hardy (1920-1931); Titchmarsh (1931-1963), who is said to have accepted 'on condition that he didn't have to lecture on geometry' [D. C. Russell, p.404]); Atiyah (1963-1969); Ioan James (1969-1995).

Savilian Professors of Astronomy
Notable holders have been: John Bainbridge (1619-1643); John Greaves (1643-?), a scholar of ancient astronomy who gave the first detailed description of the Great Pyramid); Seth Ward (1649-1660); Wren (1661-1673); David Gregory (1691-1708, elected over Halley); John Keill (1712-1721, author of the first text based on Newton's physics) [A source says Halley held this post in 1708-1712 and another source says 1704-1721, but these seem definitely wrong.]; James Bradley (1721-1762); Thomas Hornsby (1762-1810, who organized the Radcliffe Observatory); Stephen Peter Rigaud (1827-1839); H. H. Turner (1893-1930). Early professors used the purpose-built 'mathematical tower' in the Schools Quadrangle as an observatory - some of the original instruments are in the Museum of the History of Science [Simcock, pp.12 & 39-40].


Stable Hall, at the end of the Cloisters, 7 New College Lane, was the residence of the Savilian Professors of Astronomy - Halley and Bradley lived here. An attic room was added to this for use as an observatory [Simcock, p. 12].

Rouse Ball Professorship
This has been held by: E. A. Milne (1929-1950); C. A. Coulson (1952-1972); Roger Penrose (1973-1996?).

Sedleian Professorship of Natural Philosophy
This has sometimes had holders of mathematical interest: Bartholomew Price (1853-??); T. B. Benjamin (1929-1995); J. M. Ball (1996?-).

In 1721, a bequest from Nathaniel Crewe provided funds for a Reader in Experimental Philosophy, but the amount was so small that when the post was established in 1749, it was held in conjunction with the Savilian Professorship of Astronomy by Bradley, Hornsby and Rigaud. It became a full-time position in 1839. F. A. Lindemann held this Chair in 1919-1956. Matthew Lee, a wealthy London physician in the time of George II, left funds for several posts. In 1869, a Dr. Lee's Readership in Physics was started. Shortly thereafter, the University structure was changed and the Dr. Lee's posts were eventually merged into other chairs and the Professor of Natural Philosophy had Dr. Lee's attached to its title in 1922.

Wykeham Professorship of Physics
This was established in 1900 and was converted to Theoretical Physics in 1946. W. E. Lamb (Nobel Prize in Physics, 1955) held this chair in 1956-1962 and was succeeded by Rudolf E. Peierls in 1963.

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An extract from The Mathematical Gazetteer of the British Isles created by David Singmaster

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