Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Woodhouse, Robert

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WOODHOUSE, ROBERT (1773–1827), mathematician, born at Norwich on 28 April 1773, was the son of Robert Woodhouse, a linendraper and freeholder in the town, by his wife, the daughter of J. Alderson, a nonconformist minister of Lowestoft, who was the grandfather of Sir Edward Hall Alderson [q. v.] and of Mrs. Amelia Opie [q. v.] He was educated at the grammar school at North Walsham, and was admitted to Caius College, Cambridge, on 20 May 1790, graduating B.A. in 1795 as senior wrangler, and M.A. in 1798. In 1795 he was also first Smith's prizeman. He held a scholarship at Caius College from 1790 to 1798, and a fellowship from 1798 to 1823, and after graduating devoted himself to the study and teaching of mathematics. On 16 Dec. 1802 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society.

Woodhouse is entitled to distinction in the history of mathematics in England for the important share he had during his earlier years as a teacher at Cambridge in bringing to the notice of his countrymen the development in mathematical analysis which had taken place on the continent. He was the first in England to explain and advocate the notation and methods of the calculus. In 1803 he published ‘The Principles of Analytical Calculation’ (Cambridge, 4to). In this work he reviewed the methods of infinitesimals, limits, and expansions, and severely criticised the principles adopted by Lagrange in his theory of functions, regarding them as logically insufficient. By thus exposing the unsoundness of some of the continental methods he rendered his general support of the system far more weighty than if he had appeared to embrace it as a blind partisan. ‘The Principles of Analytical Calculation’ was followed in 1809 by ‘Elements of Trigonometry’ (Cambridge, 8vo; 5th edit. 1827, 8vo), a work which, according to George Peacock (1791–1858) [q. v.], ‘more than any other contributed to revolutionise the mathematical studies of this country.’ In his former work he had appealed, somewhat fruitlessly, to the teacher, but in his ‘Trigonometry’ he more successfully addressed the student and prepared the way for the introduction of the differential calculus. In 1810 appeared ‘A Treatise on Isoperimetrical Problems and the Calculus of Variations’ (Cambridge, 8vo), in which he traced the course of continental research from the earliest isolated problems of the Bernoullis to the development of Lagrange's comprehensive theory. In 1812 he published a ‘Treatise on Astronomy’ (Cambridge, 8vo), which was intended as the first volume of a more extended work. A second volume followed in 1818 on the theory of gravitation, somewhat improperly entitled ‘Physical Astronomy.’ In this treatise he endeavoured to lay before the student the results of continental research since the time of Newton.

In 1820 Woodhouse was elected to succeed Isaac Milner [q. v.] as Lucasian professor of mathematics; and in 1822, on the death of Samuel Vince [q. v.], he was removed to the Plumian professorship of astronomy and experimental philosophy. On the completion of the observatory at Cambridge he was appointed its superintendent; but, though he possessed a genuine love of practical astronomy, he was hardly able to carry out his duties owing to the failure of his health. He died at Cambridge on 28 Dec. (or, according to some authorities, 23 Dec.) 1827, and was buried in the chapel at Caius College. In 1823 he married Harriet, daughter of William Wilkins, an architect of Norwich, and sister of the architect William Wilkins [q. v.] By her he left a son Robert.

Woodhouse is entitled to the entire credit of introducing the calculus into England, but it is doubtful whether he alone, in spite of his logical power and his caustic wit, would have succeeded in converting his contemporaries. Much of his success was due to the earnest support of his three disciples, George Peacock, Herschel, and Charles Babbage [q. v.], who in 1812 founded the Cambridge Analytical Society.

[Penny Cyclopædia, 1843; Gent. Mag. 1815 i. 18–22, 1828 i. 274; Nichols's Lit. Illustr. vi. 43–4, vii. 627; Allibone's Dict. of Engl. Lit.; Venn's Biogr. Hist. of Gonville and Caius College, 1898, ii. 119; Todhunter's William Whewell, 1876; Ball's Hist. of Mathematics at Cambridge, 1889, pp. 117–23; Edinburgh Review, November 1810, March 1819; Quarterly Review, November 1810, July 1819; English Cyclopædia.]

E. I. C.