Quote from one of Thomas Hirst’s students at the University College London:
His presence in the classroom was striking. He was tall, and held himself erect with an almost military air. he had a long black beard and a great, bald, dome-like forehead. He was a man with whom it was impossible to imagine the most audacious student venturing to take a liberty. There was something about him that invested his unlovely subject with dignity, if not interest. Less, perhaps, than any of the other professors, did he seem to think of examinations. To him, I believe, incredible as it sounds, mathematics must have been a solemn, high pursuit: a passion, if not religion. Yet with all his aloofness of manner he could be very simple, very patient, and extremely kind. Certainly to one of his most hopeless pupils he showed himself all three.
No biography of Hirst is complete without the mention of John Tyndall, his mentor and friend and fellow X Club member, and as this is blog post relates directly back to the X Club, their important relationship deserves first mention. In 1844, Hirst’s father died in an accident, and he went to work for an engineering firm, where he met Tyndall. Tyndall made friends with the younger man, and encouraged him to read textbooks and continue his education. After Tyndall (and Edward Frankland, another future member of the X Club) had moved to Marburg to study chemistry, Hirst’s mother died and left him enough money that he could give up his job and follow Tyndall and his example. So, in 1850, Hirst enrolled at the University of Marburg to study mathematics, physics and chemistry. Without Tyndall’s support, there is no doubt Hirst would not have become the successful scientist.
Hirst was a writer and educator to the core. He started writing diaries at fifteen and over his lifetime he wrote about the changes happening in the scientific and mathematical arenas. That was nearly 45 years of observation and commentary, a real treasure for historians and scientists, because of his membership of the X Club. Not to put down his own achievements, but this eyewitness account of the X Club was an important contribution to history.
Sadly, Hirst’s wife died young of tuberculosis and he never remarried. Instead, he poured his energy into his work.
Hirst spent from 1860 to 1882 as an educator, either teaching at the University College School or the University College London, or as the Director of Studies at the Royal Naval College at Greenwich. At the same time, an active member of the governing councils of the Royal Society, the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and the London Mathematical Society. He was the founding president of an association to reform school mathematics curricula and also worked to promote the education of women. In 1869 he gave a course of twenty-four lectures on the Elements of Geometry to the Ladies Educational Association of London. The lectures were very successful both for their quality and for the large number of women who signed up for the course.
A excerpt from one of Hirst’s diaries, dated the 27th of July 1869: I attended Königsberger’s lecture on the theory of determinants. He introduced me to a young Russian lady [Sofia Kovalevskaya] who attends his lectures and is at home in elliptic functions. She belongs to the mathematically gifted family of Schuberts. She is pretty and exceedingly modest.
Sofia Vasilyevna Kovalevskaya was the first major Russian female mathematician, responsible for important original contributions to analysis, partial differential equations and mechanics, and the first woman appointed to a full professorship in Northern Europe. She was also one of the first women to work for a scientific journal as an editor. Instead of being horrified that her brain might melt from thinking about mathematics, Hirst’s diary excerpt praises her intelligence first and then makes a comment on her looks and manner. He would also comment upon the appearance and manner of all the male mathematicians he met, so he wasn’t treating Kovalevskaya any differently to the men. I think this is a good example of his attitude towards women … they were as easily educated as men.
I was unable to find any direct quotes from Hirst supporting the rights of women, but his actions do speak volumes. As he was a member of the X Club, and as the X Club was a major influence on the academic realm in Victorian Britain, his positive attitude to educating women must have had an impact on the misogynistic thinking of the era. All in all, he comes across as a delightful man, educator, and mathematician.
Geometry is all about patterns and balance. Hirst was a geometrician to his very bones.