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The Reverend George Salmon (September 25, 1819 - January 22, 1904) was, firstly, a mathematician whose publications in algebraic geometry were widely read in the second half of the 19th century. He was also an Anglican theologian who devoted himself mostly to theology for the last forty years of his life. His publications in theology were widely read, too.


George Salmon was probably born in Dublin, but he spent his boyhood in Cork City, Ireland, where his father was a linen merchant. He graduated from Trinity College Dublin in 1839 with very high honors in mathematics. In 1841 at the age of 21 he attained a paid fellowship and teaching position in mathematics at Trinity. In 1845 he was concurrently appointed to a position in theology at Trinity, after having been ordained a priest in the Church of Ireland in 1844. He married in 1844 and had six children.

He remained at Trinity College Dublin for the rest of his career.


In the late 1840s and the 1850s Salmon was in regular and frequent communication with Arthur Cayley and J.J. Sylvester. The three of them together with a small number of other mathematicians (including Charles Hermite) were developing a system for dealing with n-dimensional algebra and geometry. During this period Salmon published about 36 papers in journals. In these papers for the most part he solved narrowly defined, concrete problems in algebraic geometry, as opposed to more broadly systematic or foundational questions. But he was an early adopter of the foundational innovations of Cayley and the others. In 1859 he published the book Lessons Introductory to the Modern Higher Algebra (where the word "higher" means n-dimensional). This was for a while simultaneously the state-of-the-art and the standard presentation of the subject, and went through updated and expanded editions in 1866, 1876 and 1885, and was translated into German and French.

Meanwhile back in 1848 Salmon had published an undergraduate textbook entitled A Treatise on Conic Sections. This text remained in print for over fifty years, going though five updated editions in English, and was translated into German, French and Italian. Salmon himself did not participate in the expansions and updates of the more later editions. The German version, which was a "free adaptation" by Wilhelm Fiedler, was popular as an undergraduate text in Germany. Salmon also published two other mathematics texts, A Treatise on Higher Plane Curves (1852) and A Treatise on the Analytic Geometry of Three Dimensions (1862). These too were in print for a long time and went though a number of later editions, with Salmon delegating the work of the later editions to others.

In 1889 Salmon received the Copley Medal of the Royal Society, the highest honorary award in British science, but by 1889 he had long ago quit math and science.


From the early 1860s onward Salmon was primarily occupied with theology. In 1866 he was appointed to a prestigious professorship in Divinity at Trinity College Dublin, at which point he resigned from his position in the mathematics department at Trinity. In 1871 he accepted an additional post of chancellor of St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin.

One of his early publications in theology was in 1853 as a contributor to a book of rebuttals to the Catholic John Henry Newman's series Tracts for the Times. Arguments against Roman Catholicism were a recurring theme in Salmon's theology and culminated in his widely-read 1888 book Infallibility of the Church in which he argued that certain beliefs of the Roman church were absurd, especially the beliefs in the infallibility of the church and the infallibility of the pope. Salmon also wrote books about eternal punishment, miracles, and interpretation of the New Testament. His book An Historical Introduction to the Study of the Books of the New Testament, which was widely read, is an account of the reception and interpretation of the gospels in the early centuries of Christianity as seen through the writings of leaders such as Irenaeus and Eusebius.


George Salmon was a keen chess player, he was a patron to the University Chess Club,[1] and was also the President of Dublin Chess Club from 1890-1903.[2] He participated in the second British Chess Congress and had the honour of playing the great chess grandmaster Paul Morphy in Birmingham, England, on 27 August 1858.[3][4] He beat Daniel Harrwitz in an interesting game.[5]

Even in his famous book Infallibility of the Church, Salmon mentions chess a few times. He argues that the doctrine of papal infallibility is vitally important for opponents of Catholicism to refute; otherwise all other arguments would be of little importance, as when a chess-player wins lots of pieces but his king is checkmated. And Salmon said that if he met someone who says that he has never been beaten, this player could be given rook odds.

Provost of Trinity College

George Salmon was Provost of Trinity College Dublin from 1888 until his death in 1904, and a high point was when in 1892 he presided over the great celebrations marking the tercentenary of the College, which had been founded by Queen Elizabeth I. His deep conservatism led him to strongly oppose women receiving degrees from the University. He eventually agreed to dropping his veto in 1901 when the Board voted in favour of allowing women to enter the university, it was one of his last acts as Provost.[6] Symbolically in January 1904, just after he died, the first women undergraduates were admitted.[7]

Sculpture by John Hughes of George Salmon in Trinity College Dublin

* A treatise on conic sections (1848)
* A treatise on higher plane curves: Intended as a sequel to a treatise on conic sections (1852)
* Lessons introductory to the modern higher algebra (1859)
* A treatise on the analytic geometry of three dimensions (1862)
* The eternity of future punishment (1864)
* The reign of law (1873)
* Non-miraculous Christianity (1881)
* Introduction to the New Testament (1885)
* The infallibility of the Church (1888)
* Thoughts on the textual criticism of the New Testament (1897)

Notes and references

1. ^ History of Dublin University Chess Society
2. ^ A History of Dublin Chess Club, by A.A. Luce, Irish Printers Ltd, Dublin, (1967).)
3. ^ Paul Morphy vs George Salmon, Birmingham, August 27, 1858 (
4. ^ Morphy's Games of Chess by Philip W. Sergeant, G. Bell and Sons Ltd., 1937.
5. ^ Playing the Morphy Number Game, by Tim Harding,, 2010.
6. ^ The Provost's Office Former Provosts, George Salmon 1888-1904(c. 1819-1904), Trinity College, Dublin website.
7. ^ Royal Irish Academy, Dictionary of Irish Biography - George Salmon by Roderick Gow

External links

* O'Connor, John J.; Robertson, Edmund F., "George Salmon", MacTutor History of Mathematics archive, University of St Andrews, .
* George Salmon: from mathematics to theology — An examination of Salmon's motives for switching from math to theology
* Complete text of Salmon's book A Treatise on the Analytic Geometry of Three Dimensions
* Complete text of Salmon's book Analytische Geometrie Der Kegelschnitte (in German translation)
* Many selections from Salmon's theological publications
* A 50-page biography of Salmon written in 1997 by math professor Rod Gow
* George Salmon player profile at


Mathematics Encyclopedia

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