Isaac Barrow

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Isaac Barrow (1630–1677) was master of Trinity College, Cambridge, a mathematician and classical scholar, and an Anglican divine and preacher.

Family and early life[edit]

He born in London; his father, Thomas Barrow, was linendraper to King Charles I. He was from an ancient Suffolk family, but his grandfather lived at Spiney Abbey, in the parish of Wickham in Cambridgeshire, where he was a justice of the peace for forty years. His mother was the daughter of Mr. Buggin, of North Cray, and died when Barrow was only four years old. His uncle and godfather was Isaac Barrow, bishop of St. Asaph.

He went to Charterhouse School, but was a poor student, spending much of his time fighting and stirring up others to fight. As a result, his father moved him to Felstead school. Here he did much better, and was made "little tutor" to Viscount Fairfax. In 1643 he applied to Peterhouse College, Cambridge, where his uncle Isaac was a fellow. However, as a result of the English Civil War his uncle (a Royalist) was ejected, so he went to Trinity. His father lost everything supporting the King. However, Barrow was able to stay at Cambridge due to financial support from Henry Hammond. Barrow later showed his gratitude to Hammond by writing his epitaph.

In 1647 Barrow was elected scholar of Trinity, and was very popular despite his royalist opinions. He took his B.A. degree in 1648, and in 1649 was elected fellow of Trinity. He had studied physic, and considered becoming a doctor but preferred to remain an academic.

In 1652 he was awarded an M.A. degree from Cambridge, and in 1653 one from Oxford. In 1654 the professor of Greek at Cambridge, Dr. Dupont, resigned his chair, and urged that Barrow should succeed him. However, his opponents accused Barrow of heresy and pointed out that at 24 he was very young for such a post. Also, although he had a great reputation for Greek, he was even more highly thought of as a mathematician. Ironically, his work in mathematics arose from his interest in theology; he felt that to be a good theologian he must know chronology, that chronology relies on astronomy, and astronomy on mathematics.

His travels[edit]

Barrow was, as a Royalist, out of sympathy with most people at Cambridge. This led to moves for his expulsion. He decided to do some travelling, but had to sell his books to raise funds. He set out in 1655, and first visited his father, who had fled to Paris. He proceeded to Italy, spending much time in Florence. He was given money to continue his journey by Mr. James Stock, a London merchant whom he met at Florence, and to whom he afterwards dedicated his Euclid's Data.

Travelling from Leghorn to Smyrna, his ship was attacked by a pirate; Barrow fought bravely, driving off the pirate. He was well received at Smyrna by the English consul, and by the English ambassador at Constantinople. He spent more than a year there, studying the works of St. Chrysostom. He then went home slowly, visiting Venice, Germany and Holland. He returned in 1659, and at once received holy orders.

Academic career[edit]

With the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Barrow was in favour with the court. He was made professor of Greek at Cambridge, then professor of geometry at Gresham College. In 1663 he preached the sermon at Westminster Abbey when his uncle Isaac was made bishop of St. Asaph; later in that year he became the first Lucasian Professor of mathematics at Cambridge. Too conscientious to attempt more thn he could do, he resigned his Gresham professorship. He resigned the Lucasian Professorship in 1669 in favour of Isaac Newton, whom he recognised as a far better mathematician.

Barrow was now left with only his fellowship. His uncle had given him a small sinecure in Wales, and he was also a prebend in Salisbury Cathedral; but he devoted the small income from these sources to charitable purposes. However, King Charles II then appointed Barrow as his chaplain, and when the Master of Trinity College was appointed bishop of Chester, Barrow succeeded him as master of Trinity. The appointment was the king's own decision; he said that "he gave it to the best scholar in England". Charles had already shown his appreciation of Barrow as his chaplain by making him D.D. in 1670 by royal mandate.

He died on 4 May 1677, during a visit to London. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, where a monument surmounted by his bust was erected by his friends.