The Life of James Joseph Sylvester

Following my previous post about the James Joseph Sylvester Bicentenary and my article Sylvester’s Influence on Applied Mathematics I now give a brief, very selective, overview of Sylvester’s life. Some of this material was used in an after-dinner speech that I gave at the Householder Symposium XIX on Numerical Linear Algebra at Spa, Belgium on June 11, 2014.

The Sylvester Medal of the Royal Society.

I’ve drawn on many sources for this post, but the most important is the 2006 biography by Karen Parshall, James Joseph Sylvester. Jewish Mathematician in a Victorian World. That title brings out two key points: that Sylvester was Jewish, which hindered his career, as we will see, and that he lived much of his life in Victorian England, when almost everything that today we take for granted when doing our research did not exist.

Thumbnail Sketch of The Man

Sylvester was born in London in 1814. He was short, mercurial, absent-minded, temperamental, fluent in French, German, Italian, Latin and Greek, and loved poetry but was not very good at it. He was a man of remarkable tenacity, as his career on both sides of the Atlantic shows.

Career Outline

I’ll give a brief outline of Sylvester’s unusual career, with its many ups and downs, then go on to discuss some specific events in his life.

First Spell in UK

  • Sylvester was a student at University College London (UCL) under De Morgan, age 14. He was withdrawn by his family after attempting to stab a fellow pupil.
  • He was a student at Cambridge, but was not able to take the degree because he was Jewish.
  • He held the chair of natural philosophy at University College London (UCL) for three years.

First Sojourn in USA

Sylvester became Professor of Mathematics at the University of Virginia in 1841. He left after four months after an altercation with an unruly student, because he was felt that the faculty did not back him up in a subsequent inquiry.

While in New York he applied for a position at Columbia University. According to R. L. Cooke (quoted in James Joseph Sylvester. Life and Work in Letters)

After leaving Virginia he sought a position at Columbia University, with a recommendation from one of America’s leading scientists, Joseph Henry. In a wonderful irony … the selection committee informed him that his rejection was in no way connected with the fact that he was British, only the fact that he was Jewish.

Rest of Career (age 29–).

  • Sylvester Worked for the next decade as an actuary for the Equity and Law Life Assurance Society in London and trained for the Bar. He founded the Institute of Actuaries. This is when he met Cayley, who became his best friend. For this ten-year period he was doing mathematics in his spare time.
  • He was appointed Chair at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich and spent 15 years there.
  • He was appointed Chair at the newly founded Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, at the age of 61. He negotiated a salary of $5000 payable in gold, plus an annual housing allowance of $1000 also payable in gold.
  • His final position was as the Savilian Professor of Geometry at New College, Oxford in 1883, which he took up at the age of 69.

The Neologist

Sylvester introduced many terms that are still in use today, including matrix (1850), canonical form (1851), Hessian (1851), and Jacobian (1852). Another notable example is the term latent root, which Sylvester introduced in 1883, with two charming similes:

“It will be convenient to introduce here a notion (which plays a conspicuous part in my new theory of multiple algebra), namely that of the latent roots of a matrix—latent in a somewhat similar sense as vapour may be said to be latent in water or smoke in a tobacco-leaf.”

The term has fallen out of use in linear algebra and matrix theory, but it can still be found in use through “the latent root criterion” in, for example (to pick two articles found with a Google search) Differentiating with brand personality in economy hotel segment in Journal of Vacation Marketing (2014) and GHOSTS: A travel barrier to tourism recovery in Annals of tourism research (2011).


Sylvester did a great deal of editorial work. He was an editor of the Quarterly Journal of Mathematics for 23 years. He founded the American Journal of Mathematics in 1878 when he was at Johns Hopkins University. This was the first mathematics research journal in the USA, and indeed Sylvester set up the first mathematics research department in the country. As Editor-in-Chief he experienced some of the problems that subsequent journal editors have suffered from.

  • He had to work very hard to secure high quality contributions, e.g., from his friend Cayley and from students and colleagues at Johns Hopkins, in addition to his own papers.
  • He solicited Alfred Kempe’s proof of the four color theorem. After Sylvester had accepted the paper his managing editor, William Story, realized there was a gap in the reasoning, due to overlooked cases, and wrote a note the accompany the paper in which he unsuccessfully tried to patch the proof. This all happened while Sylvester was in England and he was very unhappy with the incident.


Even though Sylvester was an editor himself, he was also the author from hell! He was notorious for what his biographer Parshall calls “an impatience with bibliographic research”—something that led him into disputes with other mathematicians.

MacFarlane states that

Sylvester never wrote a paper without foot-notes, appendices, supplements; and the alterations and corrections in his proofs were such that the printers found their task well-nigh impossible. … Sylvester read only what had an immediate bearing on his own researches, and did little, if any, work as a referee.

The title of one particular paper illustrates this point:

J. J. Sylvester, Explanation of the Coincidence of a Theorem Given by Mr
Sylvester in the December Number of This Journal, With One Stated by
Professor Donkin in the June Number of the Same, Philosophical Magazine
(Fourth Series) 1, 44-46, 1851

Secular Equation Paper

Out of Sylvester’s hundreds of papers, one in particular stands out as notable to me: “On the Equation to the Secular Inequalities in the Planetary Theory”, Philosophical Magazine 16, 267-269, 1883, for the following reasons.

  • The title has virtually nothing to do with the paper.
  • This is the paper in which Sylvester defines the term latent roots—but as if a totally new concept, even though the concept of matrix eigenvalue was already known.
  • He states a theorem about a sum of products of latent roots of a product AB being expressible in terms of sums of products of minors of A and B.
  • He gives the first general definition of function of a matrix (later refined by Buchheim).
  • He discusses the special case of pth roots.

The paper is short (3 pages), no proper introduction is given to these concepts, and no proofs are given. In short, a brilliant but infuriating paper!

Baltimore Summer

In these days of ubiquitous air conditioning it is interesting to note one of the things that made it difficult for Sylvester to do research. Parshall writes, of Sylvester in Baltimore,

“He could not concentrate on his research on matrices in the debilitating summer heat and humidity”.


Sylvester’s enthusiasm for matrices is illustrated by his attempt to teach the theory of substitutions out of a new book by Netto. Sylvester

“lectured about three times, following the text closely and stopping sharp at the end of the hour. Then he began to think about matrices again. `I must give one lecture a week on those,’ he said. He could not confine himself to the hour, nor to the one lecture a week. Two weeks were passed, and Netto was forgotten entirely and never mentioned again.” (Parshall, p. 271, quoting Ellery W. Davis).

Compare this with the following quote about E. T. Bell (famous for his book Men of Mathematics, 1937), from Constance Reid’s book about Bell:

Bell’s method of teaching was to read a sentence aloud and announce that he didn’t believe it. `By the time we students convinced him that it was true,’ concedes Highberg, `we pretty well understood it ourselves.’

Inaugural Lecture at Oxford, 12 December 1885

There are many ways in which we are more fortunate today than mathematicians of Sylvester’s time. But there were some advantages to those times. From his inaugural lecture, published as On the Method of Reciprocants as Containing an Exhaustive Theory of the Singularities of Curves (Nature, 1886)

It is now two years and seven days since a message by the Atlantic cable containing the single word “elected” reached me in Baltimore informing me that I had been appointed Savilian Professor of Geometry in Oxford, so that for three weeks I was in the unique position of filling the post and drawing the pay of Professor of Mathematics in each of two Universities:


Emile Picard recounted how Sylvester, on a visit to Paris, asked him if in six weeks he could learn the theory of elliptic functions. Picard said yes, so Sylvester asked if a young geometer could be assigned to give him lessons several times per week. This began, but from the second lesson reciprocants and matrices started to compete with elliptic functions and in the ensuing several lessons Sylvester taught the young geometer about his latest research and they remained on that topic.

What Can We Learn from Sylvester’s Life?

If I had to draw two pieces of advice from Sylvester’s life story I would choose the following.

  • You are never too old to take on a major challenge (he took up the chair at Johns Hopkins University at the age of 61).
  • If you want to be remembered, define some new terms and have some theorems named after you!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s