George Salmon

Rev Prof George Salmon DD FBA FRS FRSE LLD (25 September 1819 – 22 January 1904) was a distinguished and influential Irish mathematician and Anglican theologian. After working in algebraic geometry for two decades, Salmon devoted the last forty years of his life to theology. His entire career was spent at Trinity College Dublin (TCD).

George Salmon
Born(1819-09-25)25 September 1819
Died22 January 1904(1904-01-22) (aged 84)
Trinity college
Spouse(s)Frances Anne Salvador
Parent(s)Michael Salmon,
Helena Weekes
AwardsRoyal Medal (1868)
Copley Medal (1889)

Personal life

Salmon was born in Dublin, to Michael Salmon and Helen Weekes (the daughter of the Reverend Edward Weekes), but he spent his boyhood in Cork City, where his father Michael was a linen merchant, here he attended Hamblin and Porter's School before going to TCD in 1833.

He graduated from TCD in 1839 with very high honours in mathematics. In 1841 at the age of 21 he attained a paid fellowship and teaching position in mathematics at TCD. In 1845 he was additionally appointed to a position in theology at TCD, after having been ordained a deacon in 1844 and a priest in the Church of Ireland in 1845.

He remained at TCD for the rest of his career.

He died at the Provost's House at TCD on 22 January 1904 and was buried in Mount Jerome cemetery, Dublin.[1] An avid reader throughout his life, his obituary refers to him as "specially devoted to the novels of Jane Austen." [2]


In 1844 he married Frances Anne Salvador, daughter of Rev J L Salvador of Staunton-upon-Wye in Herefordshire, with whom he had six children, of which only two survived him.


In the late 1840s and the 1850s Salmon was in regular and frequent communication with Arthur Cayley and J. J. Sylvester. The three of them together with a small number of other mathematicians (including Charles Hermite) were developing a system for dealing with n-dimensional algebra and geometry. During this period Salmon published about 36 papers in journals. In these papers for the most part he solved narrowly defined, concrete problems in algebraic geometry, as opposed to more broadly systematic or foundational questions. But he was an early adopter of the foundational innovations of Cayley and the others. In 1859 he published the book Lessons Introductory to the Modern Higher Algebra (where the word "higher" means n-dimensional). This was for a while simultaneously the state-of-the-art and the standard presentation of the subject, and went through updated and expanded editions in 1866, 1876 and 1885, and was translated into German and French.

From 1858 to 1867 he was the Donegall Lecturer in Mathematics at TCD.

Meanwhile, back in 1848 Salmon had published an undergraduate textbook entitled A Treatise on Conic Sections. This text remained in print for over fifty years, going through five updated editions in English, and was translated into German, French and Italian. Salmon himself did not participate in the expansions and updates of the more later editions. The German version, which was a "free adaptation" by Wilhelm Fiedler, was popular as an undergraduate text in Germany. Salmon also published two other mathematics texts, A Treatise on Higher Plane Curves (1852) and A Treatise on the Analytic Geometry of Three Dimensions (1862). These too were in print for a long time and went through a number of later editions, with Salmon delegating the work of the later editions to others.

In 1858 he was presented with the Cunningham Medal of the Royal Irish Academy. In June 1863 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society followed in 1868 by the award of their Royal Medal "For his researches in analytical geometry and the theory of surfaces". In 1889 Salmon received the Copley Medal of the society, the highest honorary award in British science, but by then he had long since lost his interest in mathematics and science.

Salmon received honorary degrees from several universities, including that of Doctor mathematicae (honoris causa) from the Royal Frederick University on 6 September 1902, when they celebrated the centennial of the birth of mathematician Niels Henrik Abel.[3][4]

Salmon's theorem is named in honor of George Salmon.


From the early 1860s onward Salmon was primarily occupied with theology. In 1866 he was appointed Regius Professor of Divinity at TCD, at which point he resigned from his position in the mathematics department at TCD. In 1871 he accepted an additional post of chancellor of St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin.

One of his early publications in theology was in 1853 as a contributor to a book of rebuttals to the Tracts for the Times. Arguments against Roman Catholicism were a recurring theme in Salmon's theology and culminated in his widely read 1888 book Infallibility of the Church in which he argued that certain beliefs of the Roman church were absurd, especially the beliefs in the infallibility of the church and the infallibility of the pope. Salmon also wrote books about eternal punishment, miracles, and interpretation of the New Testament. His book An Historical Introduction to the Study of the Books of the New Testament, which was widely read, is an account of the reception and interpretation of the gospels in the early centuries of Christianity as seen through the writings of leaders such as Irenaeus and Eusebius.


Salmon was a keen chess player. He was a patron to the University Chess Club,[5] and was also the President of Dublin Chess Club from 1890–1903.[6] He participated in the second British Chess Congress and had the honour of playing the chess prodigy Paul Morphy in Birmingham, England, on 27 August 1858.[7][8] He beat Daniel Harrwitz in an interesting game.[9]

Even in his book Infallibility of the Church, Salmon mentions chess a few times:

  • He argues that the doctrine of papal infallibility is vitally important for opponents of Catholicism to refute; otherwise all other arguments would be of little importance, as when a chessplayer wins lots of pieces but his king is checkmated.
  • In another chess reference Salmon said that if one met someone who says that he has never been beaten, this player could be given rook odds. Thus "the delusion of invincibility can never grow up in the mind of anyone except one who has never met a strong antagonist."[10]
  • Salmon said that if one played someone who would normally receive queen odds, then one would go easy and not be too strict, e.g. allowing take-backs. Thus he is so convinced that the Popes have erred that he is not threatened by acknowledging when they have been right.

Provost of Trinity College Dublin

Salmon was Provost of TCD from 1888 until his death in 1904. The highlight of his career may have been when in 1892 he presided over the great celebrations marking the tercentenary of the College, which had been founded by Queen Elizabeth I. His deep conservatism led him to strongly oppose women receiving degrees from the University.

He is alleged to have said that women would only be admitted to TCD as students over his dead body. He eventually agreed to dropping his veto in 1901 when the Board voted in favour of allowing women to enter the university. This was one of his last acts as Provost.[11] Coincidentally, immediately after his death on 22 January 1904, Isabel Marion Weir Johnston (from Buncrana, Donegal) became the first woman undergraduate to succeed in registering at TCD, and by the end of year dozens of other women had done likewise.[12] She recalled, "When I arrived in Dublin 1904, I was informed that he [Salmon] had died that day, and the examination had to be put off until after the funeral."[13]


  • 1848: A Treatise on Conic Sections, Third edition, 1855, Fourth edition, 1863 via Internet Archive
  • 1852: A Treatise on Higher Plane Curves: Intended as a sequel to a Treatise on Conic Sections, Third edition, 1879
  • 1859: Lessons Introductory to the Modern Higher Algebra 172 pages. 2nd edition (1866) 326 pages. 3rd edition, 1876 354 pages. 4th edition (1885) 360 pages (with some additions by Cathcart to the chapters on binary quantics). 5th edition (1964) 376 pages ISBN 978-0828401500 (the contents of the 4th edition, together with some sections from the 2nd edition omitted in the 3rd and 4th editions).
  • 1862: A Treatise on the Analytic Geometry of Three Dimensions; 5th edition, 1915 via Internet Archive, Reviews:[14][15]
  • 1864: The Eternity of Future Punishment
  • 1873: The Reign of Law
  • 1881: Non-miraculous Christianity
  • 1885: Introduction to the New Testament
  • 1888: The Infallibility of the Church, Third edition, 1899
  • 1897: Some Thoughts on the Textual Criticism of the New Testament via Internet Archive

Notes and references

  1. Biographical Index of Former Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1783–2002 (PDF). The Royal Society of Edinburgh. July 2006. ISBN 0 902 198 84 X.
  2. "Men and Women," The Sphere. 6 February 1904, p. 124
  3. "Foreign degrees for British men of Science". The Times (36867). London. 8 September 1902. p. 4.
  4. "Honorary doctorates from the University of Oslo 1902-1910". (in Norwegian)
  5. History of Dublin University Chess Society Archived 29 June 2008 at the Wayback Machine.
  6. Luce, A.A. (1967) A History of Dublin Chess Club, Irish Printers Ltd, Dublin.
  7. Paul Morphy vs George Salmon, Birmingham, 27 August 1858.
  8. Sergeant, Philip W. (1937) Morphy's Games of Chess. G. Bell and Sons Ltd.
  9. Harding, Tim (2010) Playing the Morphy Number Game,
  10. The Infallibility of the Church, London: John Murray, 4th ed. 1914, p. 111.
  11. The Provost's Office Former Provosts, George Salmon 1888–1904(c. 1819–1904), TCD website.
  12. Royal Irish Academy, Dictionary of Irish Biography – George Salmon by Roderick Gow Archived 15 November 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  13. Have Women Made a Difference in Irish Universities? 1850-2010 By Judith Harford
  14. Snyder, Virgil (1912). "Review: A Treatise on the Analytic Geometry of Three Dimensions, vol. 1, by George Salmon". Bull. Amer. Math. Soc. 19 (2): 80–83. doi:10.1090/S0002-9904-1912-02287-5.
  15. Snyder, Virgil (1915). "Review: ''A Treatise on the Analytic Geometry of Three Dimensions, vol. 2, by George Salmon". Bull. Amer. Math. Soc. 22 (3): 147–149. doi:10.1090/S0002-9904-1915-02744-8.

Further reading

Academic offices
Preceded by
John Hewitt Jellett
Provost of Trinity College Dublin
Succeeded by
Anthony Traill
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