Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: Barrow from Merriam-Webster's Collegiate(R) Dictionary

Isaac Barrow Eng. math. & theol.

Summary Article: Barrow, Isaac (1630-1677) from The Hutchinson Dictionary of Scientific Biography

Place: United States of America

Subject: biography, maths and statistics

English mathematician, physicist, classicist, and Anglican divine, one of the intellectual luminaries of the Caroline period.

Barrow was born in London in October 1630. His father, a linen-draper to Charles I, sent him to Charterhouse as a day boy, but there he achieved little beyond gaining a reputation as a bully, and he was removed to Felstead School. In 1643 he was entered for Peterhouse, Cambridge, where an uncle was a fellow, but by the time that he went up to university in 1645 his uncle had moved to Trinity College and it was there that Barrow entered as a pensioner. He received his BA in 1648 and a year later was elected a fellow of Cambridge. In 1655 his former tutor, Dr Dupont, retired from the regius professorship of Greek; he wished Barrow, his former pupil, to succeed him. But the appointment was not offered to Barrow. His reputation then was more for mathematics than classics, and he was very young. Even so, it may be true that he was barred from the chair by Cromwell's intervention. Certainly Barrow had never concealed his royalist opinions and he was out of sympathy with the prevailing republican air of Cambridge. He decided to leave England for a tour of the continent and to help finance his trip sold his library.

He remained abroad for five years, returning to England only with the restoration of Charles II in 1660. Immediately he took Anglican orders and was elected to the regius professorship previously denied him. He was also appointed professor of geometry at Gresham College, London, and in 1663 became first Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge. In 1669 he resigned the Cambridge chair in favour of Isaac Newton and a year later was made a DD by royal mandate. During the 1660s his lectures on mathematics at Gresham College formed the basis of his mathematical reputation; thereafter his energies were devoted more to theology and preaching. He was made master of Trinity in 1675 and died two years later, on 4 May 1677.

In his time Barrow was considered second only to Newton as a mathematician. Now he is best remembered as one of the greatest Caroline divines, whose sermons and treatises, especially the splendid Treatise on the Pope's Supremacy (1680), have gained a permanent place in ecclesiastical literature. Certainly he was an admirable teacher of mathematics, and although it is not true that Newton was his pupil, Newton attended his lectures and later formed a fruitful friendship with him. His mathematical importance is slight, the Lectiones mathematicae, delivered at Gresham between 1663 and 1666 and published in 1669, being marred by his insistence that algebra be separated from geometry and his desire to relegate algebra to a subsidiary branch of logic. His geometry lectures were read by few and had little influence.

More important were his lectures on optics. Most of his work in this field was immediately eclipsed by Newton's, but there is no doubt that Newton was greatly inspired by Barrow's work in the field, and to Barrow is due the credit for two original contributions: the method of finding the point of refraction at a plane interface, and his point construction of the diacaustic of a spherical interface. Barrow was a man of great powers of concentration and original thought. If he failed to reach the highest class of mathematics, the reason may well be that he spread his intellectual interests so broadly.

© RM, 2016. All rights reserved. Helicon Publishing is a division of RM.

Related Credo Articles

Full text Article Barrow, Isaac
Chambers Biographical Dictionary

1630-77 English mathematician and divine Born in London, he was educated at Charterhouse and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was elected a Fello

Full text Article Barrow, Isaac (1630 - 1677)
The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English

The son of a linen merchant, he entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1647, during the Civil War; despite his Royalist...

See more from Credo