Peacock, George (1791-1858) (DNB00)

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PEACOCK, GEORGE (1791–1858), mathematician and dean of Ely, was fifth and youngest son of Thomas Peacock, for fifty years perpetual curate of Denton in the parish of Gainford, near Darlington. George was born on 9 April 1791 at Thornton Hall, Denton, where his father resided and kept a school. As a boy he was more remarkable for a bold spirit and active habits of body than for love of study. In January 1808, when nearly seventeen years old, he was sent to the school at Richmond kept by the Rev. James Tate, formerly fellow of Sidney-Sussex College, Cambridge, then at the height of its reputation. There his talents speedily developed. His schoolfellow and friend, Charles (afterwards archdeacon) Musgrave, bears witness that Peacock ‘made himself a sound scholar in Greek and Latin, and in this branch of study, as well as in mathematics, was looked up to as an authority by his fellow-students’ (Gent. Mag. 1859, pt. i. p. 426). He always frankly acknowledged his obligations to Tate, and dedicated his ‘Algebra’ to him. In the summer of 1809, before proceeding to Cambridge, he read with John Brass of Richmond, then an undergraduate, and afterwards fellow, of Trinity College.

Peacock's name was entered on the books of Trinity College as a sizar on 21 Feb. 1809, and he came into residence in the following October. He was elected scholar of his college on 12 April 1812. In the summer of that year he read mathematics at Lowestoft with Adam Sedgwick [q. v.], with whom he maintained a lifelong friendship. He graduated B.A. in 1813, being placed second wrangler in the mathematical tripos, and he afterwards gained the second Smith's prize. In both examinations Sir John Frederick William Herschel [q. v.] was first. In the following year (1814) Peacock was elected fellow of his college. He proceeded M.A. in 1816.

Peacock was appointed a lecturer in mathematics in Trinity College in 1815, and in 1823 tutor, jointly with Robert Wilson Evans [q. v.] From 1835 till 1839 he was sole tutor. His success both as a lecturer and a tutor was very great. He possessed great knowledge, a clear intellect, and a power of luminous exposition, joined to a gift of sympathy with, and interest in, his pupils, which, at that time, was not cultivated in the university. His friend and former pupil, Canon Thompson, said of him, in the sermon which he preached in Ely Cathedral on the Sunday after his funeral, that ‘his inspection of his pupils was not minute, far less vexatious, but it was always effectual. … His insight into character was remarkable, and, though he had decided preferences in favour of certain qualities and pursuits over others, he was tolerant of tendencies with which he could not sympathise, and would look on the more harmless vagaries of young and active minds rather as an amused spectator than as a stern censor and critic’ (Thompson, Funeral Sermon, p. 13).

In politics a whig, Peacock was a zealous advocate for progress and reform in the university. While still an undergraduate he became convinced of the necessity of introducing analytical methods and the differential notation into the mathematical course. This had been already suggested without effect by Robert Woodhouse [q. v.] Peacock, Herschel, and Babbage used to breakfast together on Sunday mornings, and as early as 1812 agreed to found an analytical society, so as ‘to leave the world better than they found it’ (Life of J. F. W. Herschel, p. 263). This society hired a meeting-room, open daily; held meetings, read papers, discussed them, and published a volume of transactions. A translation of Lacroix's work on the ‘Differential and Integral Calculus’ was published at Cambridge in 1816, with appendices or ‘notes,’ as they are called, the first twelve of which were written by Peacock. In 1816–17 he held the office of moderator, and introduced the symbols of differentiation into the papers set in the senate-house. This innovation was regarded with a good deal of disfavour (cf. Todhunter, Life of Whewell, ii. 16). Peacock himself, nothing daunted, wrote to a friend on 17 March 1817: ‘I shall never cease to exert myself to the utmost in the cause of reform. It is by silent perseverance only that we can hope to reduce the many-headed monster of prejudice, and make the university answer her character as the loving mother of good learning and science’ (Proceedings of the Royal Society, 1859, p. 538). His expectations were realised. He was moderator in 1818–19, and again in 1820–1, so that he had ample opportunities for carrying further the reform he had inaugurated. His reputation as a philosophic mathematician was greatly increased by the publication of his ‘Algebra’ in 1830.

Abstract science, however, was only one of the subjects to which he devoted himself. In 1817 he was one of the syndics for building the new observatory; in 1819 he took part in the establishment of the Philosophical Society; between 1831 and 1835 he warmly espoused the scheme for rebuilding the university library on an enlarged scale, and specially recommended the design by Charles Robert Cockerell [q. v.], in defence of which he wrote three pamphlets; in 1832 he interested himself in the new building for the university press; and in 1835 was a member of the syndicate for building the Fitzwilliam Museum. During these years he gradually became one of the most popular and influential of the resident members of the senate. The measures he advocated were not always palatable; but the charm of his manner, his exquisite courtesy, his consideration for those who differed with him, generally enabled him to carry his point without either losing a friend or exasperating an opponent.

Peacock's scientific attainments were quickly recognised. He was made F.R.S. in 1818, and in 1836 he was elected to the Lowndean professorship of astronomy, then in the gift of certain high officers of the crown. For this office Whewell was also a candidate. Peacock was Lowndean professor until his death, although he soon treated the office as a sinecure. He at first lectured on practical and theoretical astronomy; afterwards, by arrangement with his colleague of the Plumian chair, on geometry and analysis. But the attendance, at first large, gradually fell off, and in later years he practically ceased to lecture. In 1838 and 1843 he was appointed a member of the commission for the restoration of the standards of weight and measure destroyed by the burning of the houses of parliament. The commission was indebted to him for many valuable suggestions.

In 1839 he was made dean of Ely. He at once removed thither, and threw himself, with characteristic energy, into the duties of his new office. The cathedral was sorely in need of repair, little or nothing having been done to it since James Essex [q. v.] had altered its internal arrangements in the last century. Peacock persuaded the chapter to undertake a complete restoration of the fabric. He was ably seconded by Professor Willis and other archæologists, and by the professional skill of Sir George Gilbert Scott [q. v.]; but his own energy and zeal carried the work through, and by his personal exertions a large sum was raised by subscription. He also interested himself in the condition of the city of Ely. He got an improved system of drainage carried out, notwithstanding bitter opposition, and he did much for the education of the middle classes and the poor. He also took an enlightened interest in the affairs of the church at large, and was chosen in 1841 prolocutor of the Lower House of Convocation, an office which he held till 1847. He served again from 1852 to 1857, when failing health compelled him to resign.

In 1841 he published a work on ‘The Statutes of the University.’ The Elizabethan statutes, by which it was then governed, were there carefully analysed, and the distinction shown between their prescriptions and existing practice. Finally, a scheme was set forth for future adoption, in which many of the changes since introduced were foreshadowed. When, in 1850, the government decided to appoint a royal commission of inquiry, he became one of the commissioners; and in 1855 he was also a member of the parliamentary commission for making new statutes for the university and colleges. Both these commissions were greatly disliked in the university. The report of the first, published in 1852, was so conciliatory that the commissioners recovered much of their personal popularity; but the draft statutes for the colleges of Trinity and St. John's were condemned by both conservatives and liberals. It was generally believed that Peacock, from his recognised influence with the commissioners, was responsible for all that was most obnoxious. He was, in fact, in favour of compromise and conciliation, but thought it his duty to shield, at cost to his own reputation, the real author of the offensive statutes. In 1855 he published a memoir of Dr. Thomas Young [q. v.], on which he had been engaged for more than twenty years. There appeared at the same time a collected edition of Dr. Young's works in three volumes, for the first two of which Peacock was responsible. This work, notwithstanding the long delay in its appearance, was warmly commended as a model of scientific biography.

Peacock's health had been failing for many years, but in 1848 he derived temporary benefit from a visit to Madeira. He died on 8 Nov. 1858, and was buried in the cemetery at Ely.

Peacock married, in 1847, Frances Elizabeth, second daughter of William Selwyn, Q.C. He left no children.

He was the author of the following works: 1. ‘Collection of Examples of the Applications of the Differential and Integral Calculus,’ Cambridge, 1820, 8vo. 2. ‘Arithmetic: Encyclopædia Metropolitana,’ 1825–6. 3. ‘A Treatise on Algebra,’ Cambridge, 1830, 8vo. 4. ‘Observations on the Plans for the New Library, &c. By a Member of the First Syndicate,’ Cambridge, 1831, 8vo. 5. ‘Remarks on the Replies to the Observations,’ &c., Cambridge, 1831, 8vo. 6. ‘Syllabus of a Course of Lectures upon Trigonometry, and the application of Algebra to Geometry,’ Cambridge, 1833, 8vo; 2nd edit. 1836. 7. ‘On the recent Progress of certain branches of Analysis’ (British Association Reports, 1834). 8. ‘Observations upon the Report made by a Syndicate appointed to confer with the architects who were desired to furnish … designs for a new library,’ Cambridge, 1835, 8vo. 9. ‘Remarks on the suggestions [of Standard Commission]. In a letter addressed to Mr. Airy 16 Jan. 1841.’ 10. ‘Remarks on the Decimal Nomenclature of Coins, Weights, and Measures, and other points connected with the subject,’ 24 Feb. 1841. 11. ‘A Treatise on Algebra,’ 2 vols. Cambridge, 1842–5, 8vo. 12. ‘Upon the Probable Influence of a Repeal of the Corn Laws upon the trade in Corn,’ London, 1846, 8vo. 13. ‘Some Observations upon the Episcopal and Capitular Estates Bill proposed by Lord Blandford 20 Dec. 1854,’ Cambridge, 1855, 8vo. 14. ‘Life of Thomas Young, M.D.,’ London, 1855, 8vo. 15. ‘Oratio habita in Camera Hierosolymitana Ecclesiæ Divi Petri Westmonasteriensis xiio Nov. 1852,’ Cambridge, 1859, 4to.

[Obituary notices of Royal Society, Proceedings, 1859, pp. 536–43; Gent. Mag. 1859, pp. 426–8; De Morgan's Arithmetical Books, pref.; Fraser's Magazine, 1858, pp. 741–6; Babbage's Passages from the Life of a Philosopher, London, 1864, p. 29; Edinb. Review, Oct. 1837, p. 114; Ball's History of the Study of Mathematics at Cambridge, 8vo, 1889, pp. 119–21, 124; personal knowledge.]

J. W. C-k.