memoirs, art and fragments by Thomas Milner

Easily the most remarkable and distinguished man to be born in our village Thurlstone was the blind mathematician Dr Nicholas Saunderson L.L.D., F.R.S.

Born in 1683, he was our great-great-great-grandmother’s great-uncle. Although totally blind from infancy, his intelligence was such that he absorbed the best education that the district could provide, and won such recognition at the University of Cambridge that he was elected, while still under thirty, to the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics, (Isaac Newton was the second, Saunderson the fourth, and the present incumbent of the Chair is Prof. Stephen Hawking).

He was a fellow of the Royal Society, and enjoyed the respect and friendship of such men as Newton and Halley. There is surely something prodigious in the fact that a young man from a remote region, who had never read a book in his life (it is said that, as a boy, he learnt to write by tracing the letters on the grave-stones in the church-yard) could betake himself to university, not to study but to teach, and could there attain a professorship; and that the schooling he could get in the local district, with his own natural genius, could make him not only a master of mathematical theory and Newtonian philosophy, but an accomplished musician and a classical scholar, capable of studying Euclid in the original Greek and delivering an oration in finely tuned Latin.

Incredible as it may seem, he was fond of hunting, on horseback – a mounted servant rode before him and his own horse followed!

He didn’t publish much and his chief monument is the two-volume edition of his Algebra.  The Elements of Algebra, 1740,this was ready for publication when he died 1739 and his wife issued it after his death.

My brother James, himself a mathematician, has the family copy.

Like Pope’s Iliad and Johnson’s Dictionary, the book was published by subscription, so these sturdy calf-bound volumes found their way into many a muniments room and many a country rectory. In the list of subscribers, amongst the worthy but rather dull English forgotten scholars, squires and noblemen, one name leaps off the page: Mons. De Voltaire. Banished to England after a spell in the Bastille, Voltaire greatly admired the liberalism of thought here and mixed in the best society and met the leading writers and thinkers of the time. He met and admired Newton, whose astronomical physics he studied with some seriousness.

When he heard about the subscription to Saunderson’s book from his friend Nicholas Thiériot, he wrote back: That famous Mr. Saunderson is, I think, the blind man who understands so well the theory of colours. T’is one of the prodigies which England bears every day .Pray subscribe to me for his book, for the  royal paper,  and let my name be counted amongst the happy readers of his productions.

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