Oxford Figures, Chapter 1: 800 years of mathematical traditions

The traditions live on

In regaining its mathematical strength during the twentieth century, Oxford was but rediscovering its historical traditions. The memory lives on in the Oxford of today not only of the medieval Oxford Schools, but also of the great flourishing of seventeenth-century mathematical science and, above all, John Wallis whose name has, since 1969, been commemorated in a named Chair of mathematics. Indeed, Oxford's knowledge of itself and memory of its past is one of its most enduring traditions, a past that is forever being added to.

We can see this sense of the immanence of history in the way that those elected to professorial Chairs have introduced themselves to their Oxford audience. The Savilian astronomy professor David Gregory opened his inaugural lecture on 21 April 1692 with tributes to Sir Henry Savile, to his new colleague John Wallis, `the prince of geometers', and to Edward Bernard whom he succeeded, and highly praised his predecessors Seth Ward and Christopher Wren. A hundred and forty years later the list had grown longer: when Baden Powell delivered an introductory lecture in 1832 as Savilian Professor of Geometry, he rehearsed the names of Oxford mathematicians of the distant and recent past:

We are justly proud of the names of Wallis and Briggs; at a subsequent period we claim those of Boyle, Wren, and Gregory, of Halley, Stirling, and Bradley; while, in still later times, we boast a Horsley and a Robertson.

James Sylvester, delivering his inaugural lecture in the same Chair half a century later, mentioned some of the same names, singling out Briggs, Wallis, and Halley, and added a moving tribute to his predecessor Henry Smith. G. H. Hardy's inaugural lecture, 35 years on, explicitly drew attention to the contributions of Briggs, Smith, and Sylvester, characterizing the study of the theory of numbers in England as particularly associated with Oxford and with the Savilian Chair. And so we might expect it to continue, with each generation remembering, celebrating, and building upon the traditions of the past.


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