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Ernest William Hobson

Sadlerian Professor of Pure Mathematics, Cambridge
1856 to 1933

Ernest William Hobson, eldest son of William Hobson (founder, part owner and editor of the regional newspaper Derbyshire Advertiser), was born 27 October 1856 in Derby. He spent his early schooling at Derby school where he showed little promise in his early years. However, this perception of him changed when, outstandingly, at the age of thirteen, he received a distinction in the Cambridge Junior Local Examinations in mathematics, natural sciences, French and music.

Hobson was later to study at the Royal College of Science, which became known as the Imperial College of Science and Technology after merging with the City and Guilds College and the Royal School of Mines in 1907. There Hobson obtained a scholarship that enabled him to study physics under the guidance of Frederick Guthrie. However, he was primarily a mathematician and in 1874 gained a scholarship at Christ’s College, Oxford. Hobson was to remain at Christ’s College all his professional life.

In 1878 Hobson graduated as Senior Wrangler (first of first class students) and subsequently was elected a fellow of his college in 1879. His career saw him being made holder of the first Stokes Lectureship, the Sadleirian Professor of Mathematics, and brought him recognition as a prominent figure in international science. In 1893 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS), and received the society’s Royal Medal in 1907. He was also heavily involved in the London Mathematical Society. He was the society’s president from 1900 to 1902 and was awarded their medal in 1920.

Hobson’s Gifford Lectures, ‘The Domain of Natural Science’, marked something of an intellectual event. Hobson was the first mathematician to be invited as a Gifford Lecturer and successfully delivered his series in accordance with Lord Gifford’s requirements. Although Hobson was perhaps most widely known on the basis of these lectures, he was more highly regarded for his contributions to mathematics. The lecture series allowed him to show his scientific and philosophical interests nonetheless, which Hobson had been able in part to nurture through a close and lifelong friendship with Professor James Ward. Nevertheless, his most important contribution was to the field of mathematics. His Theory of Functions of a Real Variable (1907) marks the indebtedness of Hobson’s work to pure mathematics and his place in the discipline’s history.

Hobson married Selina Rosa Knüsli in 1882. They had four sons, one who died before his father. Hobson died in Cambridge, 18 April 1933.

Some of his works include: A Treatise on Plane Trigonometry (1891); Theory of Functions of a Real Variable (1907); Squaring the Circle (1913); The Domain of Natural Science (1923); and Spherical and Ellipsoidal Harmonics (1931).

  • Jon Cameron, University of Aberdeen