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


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Birth of Mathematician William McFadden Orr

William McFadden Orr, mathematician, is born May 2, 1866, at Ballystockart, Comber, County Down, in what is now Northern Ireland.

Orr is the eldest son of Fletcher Blakely Orr of Ballystockart, a unitarian farmer and millowner, and Elizabeth Orr, daughter of David Lowry, farmer, of Ballymacashin, County Down. He attends a local national school, spends two years at an intermediate school in Newtownards, and then attends Methodist College Belfast (MCB). He wins a Royal University of Ireland (RIU) scholarship in mathematics in 1883 and graduates in 1885 from Queen’s College Belfast, a constituent college of the RUI. He then matriculates at St. John’s College, Cambridge, where he is Senior Wrangler in 1888 and comes in first in part two of the Mathematical Tripos in 1889. Two years later he is elected into a fellowship at St. John’s, and the same year is appointed professor of applied mathematics at the Royal College of Science for Ireland in Dublin. When the Royal College is merged with University College Dublin (UCD) in October 1926, he becomes professor of pure and applied mathematics, a position he holds until his retirement in 1933.

Orr’s 1909 publication Notes on Thermodynamics for Students is seen as epitomising his style of teaching, with its emphasis on logical rigour and clear statement of underlying assumptions. Known for his generosity to staff and students who encounter difficulties, he is nonetheless a strict disciplinarian who abhors idleness and valued stoicism. He is elected Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 1909 and is awarded an honorary degree of D.Sc. from Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) in 1919.

In 1892, Orr marries Elizabeth Campbell of Melbourne, Australia, whose father, Samuel Campbell, is from County Down. They live at 19 Pembroke Road, Dublin, and have three daughters. He dies at Douglas, Isle of Man on August 14, 1934, and is interred in Mount Jerome Cemetery, Dublin. He is survived by his two daughters.

(From: “Orr, William McFadden” contributed by Paul Rouse, Dictionary of Irish Biography, http://www.dib.ie)


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Birth of John Purser, Mathematician & Professor

John Purser, Irish mathematician and professor at Queen’s College, Belfast, is born in Dublin on August 24, 1835.

Purser is the son of John Tertius Purser (1809–1893), the general manager of the well known A Guinness, Son & Co. brewery, and Anna Benigna Fridlezius (1803-1881). He is educated in a wealthy family, which includes artists, as his cousin Sarah Purser, or engineers, as his brother-in-law John Purser Griffith. He is the brother of mathematician Frederick Purser. He receives his early education at the private boarding school run by his uncle, Dr. Richard W. Biggs, at Devizes, Wiltshire. He completes his schooling at Devizes and begins his university studies at Trinity College, Dublin, graduating BA in mathematics in 1856. He is the best mathematician of his year at the University and in 1855 he gains the Lloyd Exhibition.

Purser becomes a tutor to the four sons of William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse (1800-1867) in 1857. Lord Rosse’s 72-inch reflecting telescope, built in 1845 and colloquially known of as the “Leviathan of Parsonstown,” is the world’s largest telescope when it is built and continues to hold this distinction until the early 20th century. As well as acting as tutor to the children, Purser does become involved in Lord Rosse’s interest in astronomy but never does any observing.

In 1863, Purser is appointed professor of mathematics at Queen’s College, Belfast, a position he maintains until his retirement in 1901.

Purser is much better known as a teacher than as a researcher, and he has a good number of notable students, including Sir Joseph Larmor, theoretical physicist who serves as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge; Charles Parsons, the inventor of the steam turbine; Sir John Henry MacFarland, who becomes Chancellor of the University of Melbourne; and William McFadden Orr.

Purser never marries. When his father dies on April 5, 1893, Rathmines Castle passes to him. He dies at Rathmines Castle on October 18, 1903, a very wealthy man. In his will he leaves £100,000 to his brother Frederick Purser, £40,000 to his sister Anna Griffith and £5,000 to each of her children. In addition to the money, he owns property in Blessington Street, Essex Street and Eustace Street which he leaves to his brother-in-law John Purser Griffith. Other properties and interests that he owns he divides between his brother Frederick and his sister Anna. After his death, his sister Anna and her husband John Purser Griffith move into Rathmines Castle although, at this time, its ownership has gone to Frederick Purser. After Frederick dies in August 1910, the Castle and his considerable wealth passes to Anna.

(Pictured: Portrait of John Purser painted by the artist Sarah Purser, daughter of Tertius Purser’s brother Benjamin Purser. The portrait hangs in Queen’s College, Belfast.)