From Hull AWE
Jump to: navigation, search

William Whewell (1794-1866) was the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge (where less respectful undergraduates knew him as 'Billy Whistle') from 1841 to his death, serving as Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University in 1842-3 and again in 1855. He was keenly interested in all aspects of university education, and published Thoughts on the Study of Mathematics as a Part of a Liberal Education (1835), On the Principles of English University Education (1837) and Of a liberal education in general; and with particular reference to the leading studies of the University of Cambridge (1845-52). He argued that mathematics (particularly geometry and mechanics) and the classical languages should be the foundation of the undergraduate curriculum; although his last Chair was as Knightbridge Professor of moral theology and casuistical divinity (1838-1855), and he was a committed Christian, ordained in the Church of England (like all Oxbridge academics of his time). But his own work lay in the sciences, covering an enormous range - he was among the last polymaths in the natural sciences. He published on the tides, mathematics, mechanics, electricity and magnetism, mineralogy, astronomy, geology, as well as architecture, moral philosophy, political economy and natural theology; he wrote translations of Greek philosophy and German poetry, and many sermons and tracts. Perhaps his greatest contribution to science lay in his unifying and generalizing approach to the history and philosophy of the physical sciences. The statistician and geneticist Francis Galton (1822-1911) "Not[ed] that fame in science was heavily influenced by the association of an individual's name with some striking discovery," citing, in the words of ODNB: "Whewell as an example of one who, in spite of being among the most able of his generation, was destined to be forgotten." A more flattering remark about him was Sydney Smith (1771–1845)'s "science was Whewell's forte but omniscience his foible."

Whewell is credited with the first use in print of the word 'scientist' in a review article on Mary Somerville's On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences (1834) in the Quarterly Review (51, 1834, 59). He had first used this analogy with 'artist' at a meeting of the British Association (in which he was active, serving as vice-president in 1832 and 1837, local secretary in 1833 for the Cambridge meeting, and president in 1841) in 1833. (See also Physician - physicist.) He left money to found the Whewell Chair of International Law, 1867, in the hopes of contributing to world peace. (The current (2011) Whewell Professor is James Crawford, SC.) William Whewell paid entirely for new courts in Trinity, called Whewell's Court.

For a note on the pronunciation of his surname, see Whewell (pronunciation).