The Difficulties and Pleasures of the Biographer's Task

September 17, 2000


Mary Cannell, the author of George Green, Mathematician and Physicist, 1793-1841: The Background to his Life and Work. Published by Athlone Press in 1993 (and reviewed by Philip Davis in the July/August 1996 issue of SIAM News), the book was well received (see accompanying article) but went out of print a few years after publication. SIAM Classics editor Robert E. O'Malley, Jr., recognizing a winner, set out to have the volumepublished in the SIAM series. It will be available this fall, with the additional material described in the article. Mary Cannell died on April 18.

Lawrie J. Challis

Mary Cannell's biography of George Green was the result of more than ten years of endeavour, following her retirement, in 1975, from a very active and successful career. The first edition received strong praise from reviewers.

"In her eminently readable biographical study," Crosbie Smith wrote in The British Journal of the History of Science, "Mary Cannell has succeeded exceptionally well in recovering a great deal of highly revealing material which she uses effectively to place Green in the key contexts of Nottingham and Cambridge," producing "a thought provoking and informative study which challenges our received images of this fascinating nineteenth century mathematician." According to John Roche, in a review that appeared in Physics World, her "biography radiates the excitement of historical detective work."

Other descriptions include "an excellent biography" (Russell Burns in The Newsletter of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers), an "attractive and well-illustrated book . . . eloquent testimony to the difficulties and pleasures of the historian's task" (Jeremy Gray in The New Scientist), and "the most complete account possible of Green's life" (Eric Mansfield in Notes and Records of the Royal Society).

Cannell was brought up and educated in Liverpool. She won a scholarship to The Merchant Taylor's School for Girls, a very well-known independent school established in 1888, and then proceeded to Liverpool University, where she read for an Honours degree in general studies, in French with subsidiary history. After receiving a postgraduate diploma in education, she taught French in a number of schools in England and English at a school in France. She was a very gifted teacher, and her love of music and drama and her organisational abilities made her a valuable and respected colleague.

After World War II, she greatly enjoyed lecturing in a British Army Formation College and decided to spend the rest of her career in higher education, specifically in teacher training. In 1960, on her third college appointment, she became deputy principal of the newly founded Nottingham College of Education. Fourteen years later, on the retirement of the principal, she was appointed acting principal and supervised the amalgamation of the college with Nottingham Polytechnic, later to become Nottingham Trent University.

Mary Cannell had no background in mathematics or physics. Indeed, before her retirement she had heard neither of Green nor of his ruined windmill, which was located on a hill less than a mile from the city centre. As it happened, however, her retirement coincided with the start of a campaign to restore the mill as a memorial to Green. I was chairman of the newly formed restoration campaign, and she was present at a lecture on Green that I had been invited to give to the British Federation of University Women. The mill had played a large part in Green's life, having been both his workplace from the age of 14 and, it is said, his study, until his father built a house next to it. Much of his famous 1828 essay, which introduced both Green's theorem and Green's functions, seems likely to have been drafted in the mill.

Cannell was clearly intrigued by this story. Shortly after the lecture, I asked her if she would like to become Honorary Secretary of the George Green Memorial Fund. She turned out to be an inspired choice. A charming person with tremendous drive and organisational ability, she played a major role in the campaign, which resulted not only in the restoration of the mill in Nottingham, but also in the installation of a window in Caius College and a memorial plaque in Westminster Abbey, next to those of Newton, Kelvin, Faraday, and Maxwell.

When Cannell undertook her project, Green's work was well known to mathematicians, engineers, and physicists, but he was an obscure figure to most others, even in his home town. The main facts about his life had been set down initially by Kelvin in his preface to Green's essay on its republication in Crelle's Journal. Later, H. G. Green (no relation), a reader in mathematics at the University of Nottingham, provided considerable detail regarding the local context in a 45-page biographical article that was published in 1946.

Mary Cannell used this material in the more than fifty lectures she gave to local societies, and then as the basis of an attractively presented illustrated booklet, George Green, Miller and Mathematician, that has sold nearly 5000 copies, many of them to visitors to the windmill. She felt, though, that there was more to learn and that more needed to be done to put the material into the historical context of the period, both educational and social, and this led to the idea of a full biographical study.

She talked to Green's descendants and even introduced two branches of the family who did not know of each other's existence! She made frequent visits to Cambridge, particularly to Gonville and Caius College, where Green became an undergraduate at the age of 40 and was later named a Fellow. She also went to Queens' College, to learn more about the Reverend John Toplis, the mathematician she identified as the person most likely to have guided Green after the very limited mathematical education he would have gained from his 18 months at school.

She spent time at Thurlby Hall, the home of Sir Edward Bromhead, who did so much to help and encourage Green, looking through their correspondence, and in the Bromley House Library, Nottingham, which Green had joined in 1823, examining old catalogues to discover the books that would have been available to Green. She even travelled to Australia, to the University of Melbourne, to talk to J. J. Cross, an authority on the mathematics of Green's period.

Cannell always believed that a more extensive study of this background and of Green's personal and social environment might turn up some significant clue---the later history of his cousin William Tomlin's family, perhaps, or John Toplis's life on leaving Cambridge, or Green's contacts with contemporaries at Cambridge. Her efforts, while producing little information on Green's life, nonetheless added colour and "feel" to her perception of the man.

Cannell's early studies of French culture gave her some insight into the mathematical sources used by Green, and her interest in English social history enabled her to appreciate the unrewarding and frustrating position in which he lived---that of a working miller and mathematical genius, struggling to find a voice in a period of social privilege and rigid class structure. She became the acknowledged expert on Green's life and was invited to tell his story at a number of universities in Britain, Canada, and the United States and also at a special meeting of the Royal Society held on the 200th anniversary of Green's birth, in July 1993. Her work has been greatly appreciated; she was awarded an honorary degree by the Open University and was made a fellow of both Nottingham Trent University and the University of Nottingham.

Cannell grew to feel strongly that scientific justice had not been done to Green, and she strived to give his story the widest possible publicity. I know that she was particularly encouraged by the interest shown by mathematicians and physicists in North America, starting with a generous invitation to give a lecture on Green at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and followed by several other invitations, both in the USA and in Canada. She was particularly delighted by SIAM's offer to reproduce the biography in the Classics in Applied
Mathematics series.

The new edition of her book includes a vivid description of the events that took place during the bicentenary celebrations of 1993. It also includes the first publication (outside Nottingham) of the full text of the lectures given during the bicentennial events at the University of Nottingham by Nobel laureate Julian Schwinger, who was the first to introduce Green's functions to quantum mechanics, and by Freeman Dyson, who played such an important role in demonstrating the equivalence of the approaches used by Feynmann and Schwinger.

Lawrie J. Challis is a physicist at the University of Nottingham.


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