Sylvester, James Joseph

Sylvester, James Joseph (1814 - 1897)


James Joseph was born on Sept. 3, 1814, to Abraham Joseph Sylvester and was a Jew. Educated at the Royal Institution School, Liverpool, he proceeded to St. John's College, Cambridge, where he earned the coveted Second Wrangler in mathematics in 1837. Unable to swear to the Thirty-nine Articles of the Anglican Church, however, Sylvester was barred from obtaining a degree. Still, he earned the post of Professor of Natural Philosophy at University College, London, on Nov. 25, 1837. Single all his life, and dedicated more to public research than to regular teaching, Sylvester led a restless academic life. Appointed as Professor of Mathematics, University of Virginia, 1841, the year he obtained an M.A. degree from the University of Dublin, he resigned soon after, in March 1842, evidently because of an altercation with a student who had insulted him, and returned to England to work at Equity and Law Life Assurance Company from 1845 to 1855. He was called to the Bar in 1850. His next post was as Professor of Mathematics, Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, from 1855 to 1870. During this stint he became President of the London Mathematical Society and of the Mathematical and Physical Section of the British Association. Sylvester again left academe, this time with just one book to his name, The Laws of Verse (1870), which he practiced with as marked originality and flare as he did the analysis of numbers. His finest poem, "Kepler's Apostrophe," movingly expresses the fierce unrepentance of any free-thinking researcher. Sylvester lived unemployed in London until 1877, when Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore engaged him as Professor of Mathematics. In America he founded the American Journal of Mathematics. By 1883 he left Baltimore to become Savilian Professor of Geometry at New College, Oxford University, until his retirement in 1894. Among the greatest mathematicians of the 19th century, Sylvester founded invariant algebra. He died on March 15, 1897, and was interred in the Jewish Cemetery, Ball's Pond, London.


  • Fauvel, John. "James Joseph Sylvester: Poet." De Morgan Association Newsletter 5 (1997): 5-7.
  • Parshall, Karen Hunger. James Joseph Sylvester: Life and Work in Letters. Oxford: Clarendon, 1998. QA 29 .S95P37 1998 Mathematical Sciences Library
  • --. "Sylvester, James Joseph (1814–1897)." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Ed. Lawrence Goldman. Oxford: OUP, 2004.
  • M., P. E., and E. B. E. "Sylvester, James Joseph." Dictionary of National Biography. 258-29.
  • Sylvester, James Joseph. The Collected Mathematical Papers of James Joseph Sylvester. Ed. H. F. Baker. 4 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1904-12. QA 3 .S87 Gerstein Library
  • --. The Laws of Verse; or, Principles of versification exemplified in metrical translations, together with an annotated reprint of the inaugural presidential address to the mathematical and physical section of the British Association at Exeter. London: Longmans, 1870. LaE.Gr. S985k Robarts Library
Given Name
James Joseph
Family Name
Birth Date
September 3, 1814
Death Date
March 15, 1897
Family Relations
father : Abraham Joseph Sylvester
  • Mathematician

  • Professor

  • Equity and Law Life Assurance Co., England

Literary Period
Literary Movement
Cause of Death
First RPO Edition