seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA

Death of Mathematician Sir William Rowan Hamilton


Sir William Rowan Hamilton, Irish mathematician, Andrews Professor of Astronomy at Trinity College, Dublin, and Royal Astronomer of Ireland, who makes important contributions to classical mechanics, optics, and algebra, dies in Dublin on September 2, 1865, following a severe attack of gout.

Hamilton is born in Dublin on August 4, 1805, the fourth of nine children born to Sarah Hutton (1780–1817) and Archibald Hamilton (1778–1819). He is part of a small but well-regarded school of mathematicians associated with Trinity College, Dublin, which he enters at age eighteen. He is said to have shown immense talent at a very early age. Astronomer Bishop Dr. John Brinkley remarks of the 18-year-old Hamilton, “This young man, I do not say will be, but is, the first mathematician of his age.”

Trinity College awards him two Optimes, or off-the-chart grades. He studies both classics and mathematics, and is appointed Professor of Astronomy just prior to his graduation. He then takes up residence at Dunsink Observatory where he spends the rest of his life.

Although Hamilton regards himself as a pure mathematician rather than a physicist, his work is of major importance to physics, particularly his reformulation of Newtonian mechanics, now called Hamiltonian mechanics. This work has proven central to the modern study of classical field theories such as electromagnetism, and to the development of quantum mechanics. In pure mathematics, he is best known as the inventor of quaternions.

Hamilton’s scientific career includes the study of geometrical optics, classical mechanics, adaptation of dynamic methods in optical systems, applying quaternion and vector methods to problems in mechanics and in geometry, development of theories of conjugate algebraic couple functions, solvability of polynomial equations and general quintic polynomial solvable by radicals, the analysis on Fluctuating Functions, linear operators on quaternions and proving a result for linear operators on the space of quaternions, which is a special case of the general theorem which today is known as the Cayley–Hamilton theorem. He also invents Icosian calculus, which he uses to investigate closed edge paths on a dodecahedron that visit each vertex exactly once.

Hamilton retains his faculties unimpaired to the very last, and steadily continues the task of finishing the Elements of Quaternions which occupies the last six years of his life. He dies in Dublin on September 2, 1865, following a severe attack of gout precipitated by excessive drinking and overeating. He is buried in Mount Jerome Cemetery in Dublin.


Author: Jim Doyle

As a descendant of Joshua Doyle (b. 1775, Dublin, Ireland), I have a strong interest in Irish culture and history, which is the primary focus of this site. I am a Network Engineer at The Computer Hut, LLC, which is my salaried job. I am a member of the Irish Cultural Society of Arkansas, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization (2010-Present, President 2011-2017) and a commissioner on the City of Little Rock Arts+Culture Commission (2015-2020, 2021-Present, Chairman 2017-2018).

2 thoughts on “Death of Mathematician Sir William Rowan Hamilton

  1. Dear Mr Doyle,

    having found your blog(post) about Hamilton, I thought you might like to know that the 20th century descriptions of him are flawed. Hamilton was not an alcoholic, and he died from a combination of gout and bronchitis,

    It is true that Hamilton’s Wikipedia page claims that he was the fourth of nine children, but it is not mentioned that only five of them survived childhood; Hamilton as the second child, and four of his sisters. In his time, very many people died young, of every disease one can think of; Hamilton’s biography is full of diseases and deaths. In a time in which bleeding with leeches was considered a good idea, many people did not survive a serious disease (or perhaps, sometimes, the treatments).

    And that is what is wrong with the last sentence of the blog: only in 2004(!) someone came up with the idea that Hamilton had died from “a severe attack of gout precipitated by excessive drinking and overeating.” That was never claimed before, not even by E.T. Bell, in 1937 the first to paint Hamilton as a drunken failure, which he did because of the quaternions, not believing they could ever be useful for physics. The 2004 sentence is now all over the internet, but this was the first time,

    In 1856 Hamilton had his first attack of gout, a very common disease of which the doctors then hardly knew anything. But he also had severe bronchitis; in 1822 his entrance to Trinity College Dublin had to be postponed by about nine months because he only very slowly recovered from whooping-cough. Having become Royal Astronomer in 1827 he regularly observed the heavens at night, but he became ill too frequently and after some years he had to stop observing, except when some special event occurred. An advantage was that, apart from giving a yearly course in astronomy at TCD, he could turn almost fully to pure mathematics. But working mainly at home, with light from candles and warmth from hearthfires, I would think that someone with such severe bronchitis having become 60 is a miracle already. His parents and three sisters did not even become 45, only one sister became 78.

    Who I am: after in 2014 I found that the online descriptions of Hamilton could not be true, I wrote a book and made a website, My goal is to show where the unhappy and alcoholic stories about Hamilton came from, and that despite the wide-spread claim of a ‘difficult marriage’, he was happy in his marriage, and loved his wife Helen Bayly. E.T. Bell believed the quaternions were his ‘tragedy’; now that the quaternions have re-emerged we should let the real Hamilton re-emerge with them.

    About the painting shown here: it was made after a photo made in 1859, by an otherwise very good painter, Sarah Purser. Yet she may have known Hamilton from the early gossip only, because it does not seem to show the combination of genius with the kindness and humbleness Hamilton was known for in his time. For the, as far as I know, only photos made of him, see

    With kind regards,


    • Good morning, Anne!

      Thank you for visiting my site and providing such valuable insight into Sir William Rowan Hamilton! It is much appreciated!


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