William Whewell

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William Whewell

Portrait of W. Whewell; stipple engraving Wellcome L0014766.jpg
Born(1794-05-24)24 May 1794
Died6 March 1866(1866-03-06) (aged 71)
Alma mater Trinity College, Cambridge
Known forCoining the words scientist and physicist
Awards Smith's Prize (1816)
Royal Medal (1837)
Scientific career
Fields Polymath, philosopher, theologian
Institutions Trinity College, Cambridge
Influences John Gough
John Hudson
Influenced Augustus De Morgan
Isaac Todhunter

Rev Dr William Whewell DD FRS FGS HFRSE ( /ˈhjuːəl/ HEW-əl; 24 May 1794 – 6 March 1866) was an English polymath, scientist, Anglican priest, philosopher, theologian, and historian of science. He was Master of Trinity College, Cambridge. In his time as a student there, he achieved distinction in both poetry and mathematics.

Fellow of the Royal Society Elected Fellow of the Royal Society, including Honorary, Foreign and Royal Fellows

Fellowship of the Royal Society is an award granted to individuals that the Royal Society of London judges to have made a 'substantial contribution to the improvement of natural knowledge, including mathematics, engineering science, and medical science'.

English people Nation and ethnic group native to England

The English people are a nation and an ethnic group native to England who speak the English language. The English identity is of early medieval origin, when they were known in Old English as the Angelcynn. Their ethnonym is derived from the Angles, one of the Germanic peoples who migrated to Great Britain around the 5th century AD. England is one of the countries of the United Kingdom, and the majority of people living there are British citizens.


What is most often remarked about Whewell is the breadth of his endeavours. In a time of increasing specialisation, Whewell appears as a vestige of an earlier era when natural philosophers dabbled in a bit of everything. He researched ocean tides (for which he won the Royal Medal), published work in the disciplines of mechanics, physics, geology, astronomy, and economics, while also finding the time to compose poetry, author a Bridgewater Treatise, translate the works of Goethe, and write sermons and theological tracts. In mathematics, Whewell introduced what is now called the Whewell equation, an equation defining the shape of a curve without reference to an arbitrarily chosen coordinate system.

Royal Medal silver-gilt medal, of which three are awarded each year by the Royal Society

The Royal Medal, also known as The Queen's Medal and The King's Medal, is a silver-gilt medal, of which three are awarded each year by the Royal Society, two for "the most important contributions to the advancement of natural knowledge" and one for "distinguished contributions in the applied sciences", done within the Commonwealth of Nations. The award was created by George IV and awarded first during 1826. Initially there were two medals awarded, both for the most important discovery within the year previous, a time period which was lengthened to five years and then shortened to three. The format was endorsed by William IV and Victoria, who had the conditions changed during 1837 so that mathematics was a subject for which a Royal Medal could be awarded, albeit only every third year. The conditions were changed again during 1850 so that:

... the Royal Medals in each year should be awarded for the two most important contributions to the advancement of Natural Knowledge, published originally in Her Majesty's dominions within a period of not more than ten years and not less than one year of the date of the award, subject, of course, to Her Majesty's approval. ... in the award of the Royal Medals, one should be given in each of the two great divisions of Natural Knowledge.

Mechanics is that area of science concerned with the behaviour of physical bodies when subjected to forces or displacements, and the subsequent effects of the bodies on their environment. The scientific discipline has its origins in Ancient Greece with the writings of Aristotle and Archimedes. During the early modern period, scientists such as Galileo, Kepler, and Newton laid the foundation for what is now known as classical mechanics. It is a branch of classical physics that deals with particles that are either at rest or are moving with velocities significantly less than the speed of light. It can also be defined as a branch of science which deals with the motion of and forces on objects. The field is yet less widely understood in terms of quantum theory.

Physics Study of the fundamental properties of matter and energy

Physics is the natural science that studies matter, its motion and behavior through space and time, and that studies the related entities of energy and force. Physics is one of the most fundamental scientific disciplines, and its main goal is to understand how the universe behaves.

One of Whewell's greatest gifts to science was his wordsmithing. He often corresponded with many in his field and helped them come up with new terms for their discoveries. Whewell contributed the terms scientist, physicist, linguistics, consilience, catastrophism, uniformitarianism, and astigmatism [1] amongst others; Whewell suggested the terms electrode, ion, dielectric, anode, and cathode to Michael Faraday. [2]

A neologism is a relatively recent or isolated term, word, or phrase that may be in the process of entering common use, but that has not yet been fully accepted into mainstream language. Neologisms are often driven by changes in culture and technology, and may be directly attributable to a specific person, publication, period, or event. In the process of language formation, neologisms are more mature than protologisms.

Scientist Person that studies a science

A scientist is someone who conducts scientific research to advance knowledge in an area of interest.

Physicist scientist who does research in physics

A physicist is a scientist who specializes in the field of physics, which encompasses the interactions of matter and energy at all length and time scales in the physical universe. Physicists generally are interested in the root or ultimate causes of phenomena, and usually frame their understanding in mathematical terms. Physicists work across a wide range of research fields, spanning all length scales: from sub-atomic and particle physics, through biological physics, to cosmological length scales encompassing the universe as a whole. The field generally includes two types of physicists: experimental physicists who specialize in the observation of physical phenomena and the analysis of experiments, and theoretical physicists who specialize in mathematical modeling of physical systems to rationalize, explain and predict natural phenomena. Physicists can apply their knowledge towards solving practical problems or to developing new technologies.

Whewell died in Cambridge in 1866 as a result of a fall from his horse.

Life and career

Whewell was born in Lancaster, the son of John Whewell and his wife, Elizabeth Bennison. [3] His father was a master carpenter, and wished him to follow his trade, but William's success in mathematics at Lancaster and Heversham grammar schools won him an exhibition (a type of scholarship) at Trinity College, Cambridge (1812). In 1814 he was awarded the Chancellor's Gold Medal for poetry. [4] He was Second Wrangler in 1816, President of the Cambridge Union Society in 1817, became fellow and tutor of his college, and, in 1841, succeeded Christopher Wordsworth as master. He was professor of mineralogy from 1828 to 1832 and Knightbridge Professor of Philosophy (then called "moral theology and casuistical divinity") from 1838 to 1855. [5]

Lancaster, Lancashire county town of Lancashire, England

Lancaster is the county town of Lancashire, England. It is on the River Lune and has a population of 52,234; the wider City of Lancaster local government district has a population of 138,375.

Mathematics Field of study concerning quantity, patterns and change

Mathematics includes the study of such topics as quantity, structure (algebra), space (geometry), and change. It has no generally accepted definition.

Grammar school type of school in the United Kingdom and some other countries

A grammar school is one of several different types of school in the history of education in the United Kingdom and other English-speaking countries, originally a school teaching Latin, but more recently an academically-oriented secondary school, differentiated in recent years from less academic secondary modern schools.

Whewell married, firstly, in 1841, Cordelia Marshall, daughter of John Marshall; she died in 1855. In 1858 he married again, to Everina Frances (née Ellis), widow of Sir Gilbert Affleck, 5th Baronet who had died in 1865. [6] He himself died in Cambridge in 1866 as a result of a fall from his horse.; [7] [8] he is buried in the chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge, whilst his wives are buried together in the Mill Road Cemetery, Cambridge. A window dedicated to Lady Affleck, his second wife, was installed in her memory in the chancel of All Saints' Church, Cambridge and made by Morris & Co.

John Marshall (industrialist) industrialist

John Marshall was a British businessman and politician from Leeds, West Yorkshire, England.

The Affleck Baronetcy, of Dalham Hall in the County of Suffolk, was a title in the Baronetage of Great Britain. It was created on 10 July 1782 for the naval commander Edmund Affleck. The title became extinct on the death of the eighth Baronet in 1939.

Mill Road Cemetery, Cambridge

Mill Road Cemetery is a cemetery off Mill Road in the Petersfield area of Cambridge, England. Since 2001 the cemetery has been protected as a Grade II Listed site, and several of the tombs are also listed as of special architectural and historical interest.


History and development of science

William Whewell, c. 1860s William Whewell.jpg
William Whewell, c. 1860s

His best-known works are two voluminous books which attempt to systematize the development of the sciences, History of the Inductive Sciences (1837) and The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, Founded Upon Their History (1840). While the History traced how each branch of the sciences had evolved since antiquity, Whewell viewed the Philosophy as the "Moral" of the previous work as it sought to extract a universal theory of knowledge through history. In the latter, he attempted to follow Francis Bacon's plan for discovery. He examined ideas ("explication of conceptions") and by the "colligation of facts" endeavoured to unite these ideas with the facts and so construct science.

Whewell's three steps of induction

Whewell analysed inductive reasoning into three steps:

Upon these follow special methods of induction applicable to quantity: the method of curves, the method of means, the method of least squares and the method of residues, and special methods depending on resemblance (to which the transition is made through the law of continuity), such as the method of gradation and the method of natural classification. In Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences Whewell was the first to use the term "consilience" to discuss the unification of knowledge between the different branches of learning.

Opponent of English empiricism

Here, as in his ethical doctrine, Whewell was moved by opposition to contemporary English empiricism. Following Immanuel Kant, he asserted against John Stuart Mill the a priori nature of necessary truth, and by his rules for the construction of conceptions he dispensed with the inductive methods of Mill.

Whewell's neologisms

One of Whewell's greatest gifts to science was his wordsmithing. He often corresponded with many in his field and helped them come up with new terms for their discoveries. In fact, Whewell came up with the term scientist itself in 1833, and it was first published in Whewell's anonymous 1834 review of Mary Somerville's On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences published in the Quarterly Review . [9] (They had previously been known as "natural philosophers" or "men of science").

Work in college administration

Statue of Whewell by Thomas Woolner in Trinity College Chapel, Cambridge Statue of William Whewell at Trinity College, Cambridge.jpg
Statue of Whewell by Thomas Woolner in Trinity College Chapel, Cambridge

Whewell was prominent not only in scientific research and philosophy, but also in university and college administration. His first work, An Elementary Treatise on Mechanics (1819), cooperated with those of George Peacock and John Herschel in reforming the Cambridge method of mathematical teaching. His work and publications also helped influence the recognition of the moral and natural sciences as an integral part of the Cambridge curriculum. In general, however, especially in later years, he opposed reform: he defended the tutorial system, and in a controversy with Connop Thirlwall (1834), opposed the admission of Dissenters; he upheld the clerical fellowship system, the privileged class of "fellow-commoners," and the authority of heads of colleges in university affairs. He opposed the appointment of the University Commission (1850), and wrote two pamphlets (Remarks) against the reform of the university (1855). He stood against the scheme of entrusting elections to the members of the senate and instead, advocated the use of college funds and the subvention of scientific and professorial work.

He was elected Master of Trinity College, Cambridge in 1841, and retained that position until his death in 1866.

The Whewell Professorship of International Law and the Whewell Scholarships were established through the provisions of his will. [10] [11]

Whewell's interests in architecture

Aside from Science, Whewell was also interested in the history of architecture throughout his life. He is best known for his writings on Gothic architecture, specifically his book, Architectural Notes on German Churches (first published in 1830). In this work, Whewell established a strict nomenclature for German Gothic churches and came up with a theory of stylistic development. His work is associated with the "scientific trend" of architectural writers, along with Thomas Rickman and Robert Willis.

He paid from his own resources for the construction of two new courts of rooms at Trinity College, Cambridge, built in a Gothic style. The two courts were completed in 1860 and (posthumously) in 1868, and are now collectively named Whewell's Court (in the singular).

Whewell's works in philosophy and morals

Portrait by James Lonsdale William Whewell portrait.jpg
Portrait by James Lonsdale

Between 1835 and 1861 Whewell produced various works on the philosophy of morals and politics, the chief of which, Elements of Morality, including Polity, was published in 1845. The peculiarity of this work—written from what is known as the intuitional point of view—is its fivefold division of the springs of action and of their objects, of the primary and universal rights of man (personal security, property, contract, family rights and government), and of the cardinal virtues (benevolence, justice, truth, purity and order).

Among Whewell's other works—too numerous to mention—were popular writings such as the third Bridgewater Treatise Astronomy and General Physics considered with reference to Natural Theology (1833), and the essay, Of the Plurality of Worlds (1853), in which he argued against the probability of life on other planets, and also the Platonic Dialogues for English Readers (1850–1861), the Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy in England (1852), the essay, Of a Liberal Education in General, with particular reference to the Leading Studies of the University of Cambridge (1845), the important edition and abridged translation of Hugo Grotius, De jure belli ac pacis (1853), and the edition of the Mathematical Works of Isaac Barrow (1860). [12] [13]

Whewell was one of the Cambridge dons whom Charles Darwin met during his education there, and when Darwin returned from the Beagle voyage he was directly influenced by Whewell, who persuaded Darwin to become secretary of the Geological Society of London. The title pages of On the Origin of Species open with a quotation from Whewell's Bridgewater Treatise about science founded on a natural theology of a creator establishing laws: [14]

But with regard to the material world, we can at least go so far as this—we can perceive that events are brought about not by insulated interpositions of Divine power, exerted in each particular case, but by the establishment of general laws.

Works by Whewell

Honors and recognitions

In fiction

In the 1857 novel Barchester Towers Charlotte Stanhope uses the topic of the theological arguments, concerning the possibility of intelligent life on other planets, between Whewell and David Brewster in an attempt to start up conversation between her impecunious brother and the wealthy young widow Eleanor Bold. [18]

See also

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  1. Leffler CT, Schwartz SG, Stackhouse R, Davenport B, Spetzler K (2013). "Evolution and impact of eye and vision terms in written English". JAMA Ophthalmology . 131 (12): 1625–31. doi:10.1001/jamaophthalmol.2013.917. PMID   24337558. Archived from the original on 23 December 2014.
  2. Faraday, Michael (1834). "On Electrical Decomposition". Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Archived from the original on 20 July 2011. Retrieved 17 January 2010. In this article Faraday coins the words electrode, anode , cathode , anion , cation , electrolyte , and electrolyze .
  3. Biographical Index of Former Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1783–2002 (PDF). The Royal Society of Edinburgh. July 2006. ISBN   978-0-902198-84-5.
  4. University of Cambridge (1859), A Complete Collection of the English Poems which Have Obtained the Chancellor's Gold Medal in the University of Cambridge (PDF), Cambridge: W. Metcalfe, retrieved 1 October 2008
  5. "Whewell, William (WHWL811W)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  6. Yeo, Richard. "Whewell, William". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/29200.(Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  7. GRO Register of Deaths: MAR 1866 3b 353 CAMBRIDGE – William Whewell, aged 71
  8. Full bibliographical details are given by Isaac Todhunter, William Whewell: An Account of his Writings, with selection from his literary and scientific correspondence, London: Macmillan, 1876, (volume 1, volume 2). See also Mrs Stair Douglas The Life and Selections from the Correspondence of William Whewell, D.D., London: C. Kegan Paul & Co., 1881, at Internet Archive
  9. Ross, Sydney (1962). "Scientist: The story of a word" (PDF). Annals of Science . 18 (2): 65–85. doi:10.1080/00033796200202722 . Retrieved 8 March 2011. To be exact, the person coined the term scientist was referred to in Whewell 1834 only as "some ingenious gentleman." Ross added a comment that this "some ingenious gentleman" was Whewell himself, without giving the reason for the identification. Ross 1962, p.72.
  10. Statutes and Ordinances of the University of Cambridge. Cambridge University Press. 2009. pp. 49–50. ISBN   9780521137454.
  11. Dr. William Whewell laid in his will: "an earnest an express injunction on the occupant of this chair that he should make it his aim in all parts of his treatment of the subject, to lay down such rules and suggest such measures as might tend to diminish the evils of war and finally to extinguish war among nations. See Maine, Henry Sumner (1888). Whewell Lectures, International Law, A Series of Lectures Delivered before the University of Cambridge, 1887 (1 ed.). London: John Murray. p. 1. Retrieved 8 September 2015. via Internet Archive
  12. Grotius on the Right of War and Peace, An Abridged Translation by William Whewell, Cambridge: At the University Press, 1853 at Internet Archive
  13. The Mathematical Works of Isaac Barrow, D.D., edited for Triniity College by W. Whewell, Cambridge: At University Press, 1860, at Internet Archive
  14. Darwin, Charles (1859), On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, London: John Murray (The Origin of Species page ii.) Retrieved on 5 January 2007
  15. "Review of On the Principles of English University Education by William Whewell". The Quarterly Review. 59: 439–483. October 1837.
  16. "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter W" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 15 September 2016.
  17. http://www.sedgwickmuseum.org/index.php?page=whewell-mineral-gallery
  18. Bowen, John, ed. (2014). "Explanatory notes". Barchester Towers. Oxford University Press. p. 452. ISBN   9780199665860.

Further reading

Academic offices
Preceded by
Christopher Wordsworth
Master of Trinity College, Cambridge
Succeeded by
William Hepworth Thompson