Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/FitzGerald, George Francis

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FITZGERALD, GEORGE FRANCIS (1851–1901), professor of natural and experimental philosophy in the University of Dublin, born at 19 Lower Mount St., Dublin, on 3 Aug. 1851, was second of three sons of William FitzGerald [q. v.], rector of St. Ann's, Dublin, and afterwards successively bishop of Cork and of Killaloe. His mother, Anne Frances, was daughter of George Stoney of Oakley Park, Birr, King's County, and sister of George Johnstone Stoney [q. v. Suppl. II]. His younger brother, Maurice, was professor of engineering in Queen's College, Belfast, from 1884 to 1910. After education at home, under M. A. Boole, sister of George Boole [q. v.] the mathematician, he entered Trinity College, Dublin, at sixteen, and graduated B.A. in 1871 as first senior moderator in mathematics and experimental science, having won the university studentship in science. From boyhood he had shown an aptitude for mathematics, was athletic, and skilful with his fingers, but showed little ability for languages. For six years (1871-7), with a view to a fellowship, he studied the memoirs of mathematical physicists, and at the same time acquired a life-long reverence for the philosophy of Bishop Berkeley. He was awarded a fellowship in 1877 and became a tutor of the college. On the death of John R. Leslie in 1881 he became Erasmus Smith professor of natural and experimental philosophy, and held the post till his death.

Both as tutor and as professor FitzGerald exerted himself to bring the teaching of physical science at Trinity College up to the standard of the time, but he was hampered by lack of funds. He started, however, a physical laboratory, and gathered round him a small band of earnest workers whom he infected with his own enthusiasm. A large proportion of his teaching work was necessarily elementary, but his honours students fully appreciated his originality and suggestiveness.

FitzGerald showed a singular insight into difficult and obscure branches of physical science. His published work, 'not large in bulk but very choice and original,' deals mainly with the correction and development of the electromagnotic theory of radiation first put forward by Professor Clerk Maxwell [q. v.]. He suggested in 1882 the principle of the method of production of 'electric waves' which Hertz used in 1887, and he contributed much himself to our knowledge of their properties. He took a leading part in the discussion of electrolysis, and supported the view, since confirmed, that 'cathode rays' are streams of electrified particles. 'He possessed extraordinary versatility, and in the deepest subjects was more at home than in the trivial,' throwing out luminous suggestions 'with splendid prodigality and rejoicing if they were absorbed and utilised by others.' All his writings — chiefly contributions to the periodicals of scientific societies — have been collected by Sir Joseph Larmor and issued by the Dublin University Press as 'The Scientific Writings of the late George Francis FitzGerald' (1902).

FitzGerald was elected F.R.S. London in 1883, and in 1899 was awarded a royal medal by the society for his investigations in theoretical physics. In 1900 he was made an honorary fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He acted as honorary secretary of the Royal Dublin Society from 1881 to 1889, and as registrar of Dublin University School of Engineering from 1886. He was president of the mathematical and physical section of the British Association at Bath in 1888, president of the Physical Society of London in 1892-3, and chairman of the Dublin local section of the Institution of Electrical Engineers on its foundation in 1899. For many years he was examiner in physics in the University of London, and he took a prominent part in the educational affairs of Ireland, serving on the boards of national, of intermediate, and of technical education for Ireland. In educational matters 'self-satisfied unprogressiveness excited his indignation.'

FitzGerald died at 7 Ely Place, Dublin, on 22 Feb. 1901, and was buried at Mount Jerome. He married Harriette Mary, second daughter of John Hewitt Jellett, F.R.S. [q. v.], and had by her three sons and five daughters. His widow was awarded a civil list pension of 100l. in 1903. A charcoal portrait done about 1877 by John Butler Yeats belongs to his brother Maurice. An enlargement of the engraved portrait which forms the frontispiece of the 'Collected Works' hangs in the engineering school of Trinity College, Dublin.

[The Times, 25 Feb. 1901; Nature, 7 March 1901; Electrician, 1 March 1901; Proc. Roy. Soc. vol. 75, 1905; Journal Inst. Elect. Eng. 30, pp. 510, 1244; Physical Review, May 1901, reprinted in Collected Works; private information from Miss FitzGerald, Prof. F. T. Trouton, and Prof. W. E. Thrift.]

C. H. L.