Robert Leslie Ellis
(25 August 1817 –
12 May 1859) was an
English polymath, remembered principally as a mathematician
and editor of the works of Francis
Bacon.
Ellis was
the youngest of six children of Francis Ellis (1772–1842) of
Bath.
Educated
privately, he entered Trinity College, Cambridge in 1836, graduating as Senior Wrangler in 1840 and elected Fellow
of Trinity shortly afterwards. Although he had also
entered the Inner
Temple in 1838, was called to the bar in 1840, and later
helped William Whewell with
jurisprudence, Ellis never practised law. He hoped
unsuccessfully for the Cambridge chair of civil law.
Inheriting
substantial Irish estates when
his father died, Ellis contemplated entering Parliament as a whig
under Sir William
Napier's patronage. Yet his courtship of one of Napier's
daughters unfortunately ended in some confusion, and Ellis never
married.
As a mathematician, Ellis founded the
Cambridge Mathematical
Journal with
D. F. Gregory in
1837. His own major mathematical contributions were on functional
and differential equations, and the theory of probability ('On the
foundations of the theory of probabilities', 1849).
Philosophically, Ellis (like
George
Boole and later
John Venn) defended an
objective rather than subjective theory of probability. He
corresponded with
Augustus De
Morgan on the conjectured
four
color theorem.
Ellis took on the editing of
Francis
Bacon's works with two other Trinity fellows,
Douglas Denon Heath and
James Spedding. Unfortunately, dramatic
deterioration of Ellis's health from 1847 left his work on the
general prefaces to Bacon's philosophy unfinished. Spedding and
Heath completed the
Works in seven volumes, published
1857-1859.
Continental travel failed to restore Ellis' health.
An attack of rheumatic
fever at Sanremo in 1849 left
him an invalid, and he returned to Cambridge, living at Anstey
Hall, Trumpington, next to his friend John
Grote, vicar of Trumpington. From his sickbed he kept up
contact with the young Trinity mathematician William Walton, and
dictated his thoughts on a wide range of topics, including
etymology, bees' cells, Roman money, the principles of a projected
Chinese dictionary, and Boole's
The Laws of Thought (1854). He
translated
Dante,
Roman
law texts and Danish ballads; a gentle melancholia suffuses the
lines of his own poetry which he left in manuscipt.
William Walton edited a posthumous collection of both published and
unpublished writings, in
The mathematical and other writings of
R. L. Ellis (1863): this was prefaced by a
biographical memoir by Harvey Goodwin.
Correspondence and
notebooks of Ellis are amongst the Mayor Papers and Whewell Papers
at Trinity College,
Cambridge.
References
- Goodwin, Harvey (1863) 'Biographical Memoir of Robert Leslie
Ellis'. In W. Walton, ed., The Mathematical and other Writings
of R. L. Ellis.
- Kiliç, Berna (2000) 'Robert Leslie Ellis and John Stuart Mill
on the one and the many of frequentism', British Journal for
the History of Philosophy 8:2.
- Panteki, Maria, 'Ellis, Robert Leslie (1817–1859)', Oxford Dictionary of
National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.
External links