Body and spirit

15th August 2003 at 01:00
Born in 1682, Nicholas Saunderson survived smallpox as a baby but was blinded by the disease. He went to Penistone grammar school, where he learned Latin and Greek. His father supplemented his schooling by teaching him maths, in which he excelled. He devised a sophisticated pegboard to help him in his calculations, but his humble background and obvious disability made his dream of going to university seem unachievable.

Two well-educated local gentlemen gave him the chance to attend college, but the level of teaching left him frustrated. When he was 25, Joshua Dunn, a friend who had gone on to study at Cambridge, asked him to become his personal tutor. Saunderson's reputation spread and soon other students started coming to him.

Hearing of his mastery of the subject, the Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge, William Whiston, invited him to deliver a series of lectures, and students flocked to hear him. He became established in the university, befriending leading thinkers such as Isaac Newton and Edmond Halley.

When Whiston was removed from office, Nicholas Saunderson was the obvious replacement. But he had no degree. Colleagues petitioned Queen Anne, who awarded him an honorary Master of Arts.

He was appointed Lucasian professor of mathematics (the post now held by Professor Stephen Hawking) in 1711 and remained there until his death in 1739.

A collection of his lectures and writings, Elements of Algebra, is one of the founding texts of that branch of mathematics.

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