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Darwin Correspondence Project

George Peacock


George Peacock
George Peacock taken from Alexander MacFarlane, 1916. 'Lectures on Ten British Mathematicians of the Nineteenth Century', London: Chapman & Hall, Ltd. Frontispiece
Cambridge University Library

George Peacock was born 9 April 1791 in Denton near Darlington in Yorkshire. He was the son of a clergyman, the Rev. Thomas Peacock, curate of Denton for 50 years and school master. George was educated at Sedbergh School, Cumbria and Richmond School in Yorkshire.

In 1809 he became a student at Trinity College Cambridge. He went on to become a fellow and then tutor of the college in 1823. During his time at Cambridge he was a founder member of Analytical Society, with his friends and fellow students, John Herschel and Charles Babbage. The society aimed to encourage the study of analytical method and to challenge traditions of mathematical theory and teaching. The society translated Lacroix’s Differential Calculus, in 1816, adding over 100 pages of notes. Peacock published his Treatise on Algebra in 1830 in which he sought to apply classical philosophy and logic to the study of algebra.

Peacock’s energy and commitment to the progression and reform of science was evidenced by him being co-founder and supporter of the Astronomical Society in London and a keen promoter of the establishment of an astronomical observatory at Cambridge, where he also founded the Philosophical Society.  He was elected to the Royal Society of London in 1818, and appointed Lowndean Professor of Astronomy at Cambridge in 1837.

Running parallel to his busy and influential scientific career, Peacock was ordained as deacon, then priest and became Vicar of Wymewold in 1826. In 1839 he was appointed Dean of Ely Cathedral by Lord Melbourne, a role which he maintained for the rest of his life. He carried out extensive out extensive restoration works to the cathedral and improved sanitation in Ely.

In August 1831 Peacock wrote to John Stevens Henslow, telling him that he has been asked by his friend Francis Beaufort (hydrographer to the British Admirality) to recommend a ‘proper person to go out as a naturalist ‘aboard HMS Beagle. Henslow suggested Darwin as the right choice and wrote to ask him.  Both men stressed the opportunities that the voyage would afford and the treasures that might be brought home.

In 1847, at the age of 56, he married Frances Selwyn. They had no children and his health started to deteriorate from around this time. He died 8 November 1858 and is remembered most for his philosophical contributions to understanding mathematical science.