George Salmon, Mathematician & Theologian


George Salmon (1819-1904) [Image: MacTutor]

As you pass through the main entrance of Trinity College, the iconic campanile stands before you, flanked, in pleasing symmetry, by two life-size statues. On the right, on a granite plinth is the historian and essayist William Lecky. On the left, George Salmon (18191904) sits on a limestone platform.

Salmon was a distinguished mathematician and theologian and Provost of Trinity College. For decades, the two scholars have gazed down upon multitudes of students crossing Front Square. The life-size statue of Salmon, carved from Galway marble by the celebrated Irish sculptor John Hughes, was erected in 1911. Next Wednesday will be the 200th anniversary of Salmon’s birth [TM171 or search for “thatsmaths” at].


The Campanile at Trinity College, Dublin [Image Wikimedia Commons].

Trinity College Dublin

George Salmon was born in Dublin. His father was a linen merchant from Cork and George grew up and went to school in that city. In 1833, aged just 14 years, Salmon entered Trinity College Dublin, where he was to spend his entire career. He graduated in the year 1838 after an outstanding undergraduate performance. In 1841 he was elected to a fellowship. In 1858, Salmon was appointed Donegall lecturer in mathematics.

As a tutor, Salmon would lecture twice each day, advising, directing and examining his students. In addition to this heavy load, he produced forty-one mathematical papers and four influential mathematical texts during the following twenty years or so. Salmon did research in algebra, matrices and group theory, in close collaboration with the leading English mathematicians of the day, Arthur Cayley and Joseph Sylvester.

Successful Texbooks

Salmon is mostly remembered today for the four textbooks on mathematics that he wrote. Their titles, in shortened form, were Conic Sections, Plane Curves, Modern Higher Algebra and Geometry of Three Dimensions. The books were commercially successful as standard textbooks for several decades, and they had great influence on education in mathematics. The book on conic sections has remained in use until relatively recently, and all texts have been reprinted numerous times and translated into many languages. They are still available in print-on-demand format.


George Salmon (1819-1904) [Image: Portrait by Sarah Purser. © Trinity College Dublin]

Changing to Theology

After about two decades of mathematics, Salmon, who was an ordained Church of Ireland priest, changed his focus of research to higher matters and devoted his last forty years to theology. In 1859 he was awarded degrees in Divinity and in 1866 he was appointed Regius Professor of Divinity. Salmon was a renowned scholar of the New Testament. He wrote a book, “The infallibility of the Church”, a criticism of Papal Infallibility. He also published five volumes of the sermons he had preached in the Chapel of Trinity College. It was often said that his sermons were better read than listened to. Perhaps this was because he did not have a strong voice, but one is reminded of the description of Wagner’s music as “much better than it sounds”.

Many Honours

George Salmon received many awards during his life. He was elected a member of the Royal Irish Academy in 1843 and a Fellow of the Royal Society twenty years later. He was awarded the highest honours of both, the Cunningham Medal of the RIA in 1858 and the Copley Medal of the RS in 1889. He was also elected Fellow of the British Academy in 1902. In addition, Salmon was an Honorary Member of several European National Academies, and Oxford, Cambridge and Edinburgh honoured him with doctorates.

In 1888, Salmon was appointed Provost of Trinity College and he remained in that office for the rest of his life. He was deeply conservative, strongly opposing the admittance of women to the college. George Salmon died in the Provost’s House in Trinity College in 1904, the very year in which the first women undergraduates were admitted to the college.

Notice: An evening course on recreational maths at UCD, Awesums: Marvels and Mysteries of Mathematics, is now open for booking online ( or by phone (01 7167123).

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