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Gregory, David, 1659-1708 (professor of mathematics, University of Edinburgh, and Savilian Professor of Astronomy, University of Oxford)


David Gregory (1659-1708), astronomer and mathematician, was the first university professor to teach astronomy in the language of Newtonian gravitation. He is famous for his influential textbook, Astronomiae Physicae et Geometricae Elementa, (1702). Having studied a while at Marischal College, Aberdeen, and without graduating, Gregory took the Mathematics Chair at Edinburgh University in 1683, by unseating the incumbent there in a series of public debates. It helped that the chair had been occupied briefly some years before by his esteemed uncle, James Gregorie (1638-1675). David was awarded a hasty MA for decorum's sake, even though he had never studied in Edinburgh, and taught for seven years. His lecture notes show that he covered a broad range of subjects, some of them not in mathematics. He also taught a little optics, mechanics, hydrostatics, and even anatomy, from Galen. His first significant publication was in 1684, the Exercitatio geometrica de dimensione figurarum , in which he extended his uncle's work on the method of quadratures by infinite series.
In 1689 there sprang bad blood between the university masters and their paymasters, the city council, initially having to do with pay cuts and treacherous electioneering. There quickly developed a web of sleights and grudges, in the course of which Gregory was libelled before the new Hanoverian committee of visitation as it toured all the Scottish educational bodies following the recent change of government. He was said to be a violent, drunken atheist, who kept women in his chambers and once visited a prisoner in the Canongate tollbooth; worse, he was a superficial teacher and a crypto-Cartesian. Surrounded by influential friends, and not holding any demonstrably radical views in politics, science, or deportment, he was finally not dismissed from the faculty as many of his colleagues were, nor even required to swear the oath of allegiance to the Hanoverian monarchy or the religious Confession of Faith either.
Yet by 1691 he saw fit to cadge a fresh appointment comfortably far away, in Oxford. This was the Savilian Chair of Astronomy. In its pursuit he came to know personally the figures with whom he had lately been in professional correspondence, like Isaac Newton (1642-1727), Edmond Halley (1656-1742), and John Flamsteed (1646-1719), the first Astronomer Royal. He was given another MA to suit the post, and a desultory MD; he was elected to the Royal Society, and appointed a master commoner of Balliol College. He spent the rest of his life as Savilian Professor, where he became something of an evangelist for Newtonian science among the Cartesians. He even troubled to travel to the continent, to exchange views with prominent colleagues like Jan Hudde (1628-1704) and Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695). He quarrelled occasionally with Newton and Halley over various points of research, and with Flamsteed over tutoring maths in the Duke of Gloucester's household, but generally carried on very productively.
His Edinburgh lectures he retooled by 1695 into the enduringly influential optics textbook, Catoptricae et dioptricae sphaericae elementa, whose special contribution was to propose an achromatic telescope, whose combined lenses ought to counteract colour aberrations. By 1702 his principle work went to press, the remarkable Astronomiae physicae et geometricae elementa. This was the first textbook to cast astronomy completely in the alloy of Newtonian gravitational principles. Newton himself assisted with the work, which at least one publisher immodestly declared would 'last as long as the sun and the moon'. It certainly lasted most of the eighteenth century. His final big publication was a joint edition of Euclid, which appeared in 1703. All through his career he complemented his monographs with a steady flow of journal articles and published correspondence in mathematics and astronomy; his special interests included the catenary curve, eclipses, the contemporary 'parallax problem', and the very famous Cassinian orbital model for heavenly bodies.
Late in his life, in 1707, the Act of Union between Scotland and England effectively ended Gregory's studies, calling him away from his work on an edition of Apollonius (eventually finished by Halley), and setting him to work instead on rationalising the Scottish Mint, even as Newton was doing at the London Mint, and on calculating the enormously complex 'Equivalent', a payment to Scotland to offset new customs and excise duties. His health failed him during his extensive official travelling. David Gregory died in a Maidenhead inn a year later. David Gregory was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1692 and was made honorary fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh in 1705.

Found in 147 Collections and/or Records:

Ichnographia ville prope Leidam ubi Des Cartes mansit, 1680

Identifier: Coll-33/Folio C [154]
Scope and Contents A ground plan of Descartes' house near Leyden. On the reverse is a Latin treatment of the relationship between religious faith and philosophical certitude.
Dates: 1680

In editione nova Philos: Newtoniana haec ab Auctore fient, May 1694

Identifier: Coll-33/Folio C [42]
Scope and Contents These are the things that Gregory was able to copy into his notes or his own copy of the Principia from those things which Newton had altered in his own copy. He proposed that these be published as a volume of Notae if not as a second edition.
Dates: May 1694

Indefinita quadratura lunula Hippocratis, 1 August 1693

Identifier: Coll-33/Folio C [64]
Scope and Contents Gregory's notes on conversations with Fatio and his own brother James.
Dates: 1 August 1693

Index Chartarum in M.S. C. in folio, 1700

Identifier: Coll-33/Folio C [index]
Scope and Contents An index, in Gregory's hand, to the material he designated as Folio C.
Dates: 1700

Inventio Canonis quo facillime ex quaratico Tschurnhausii determinatur quadranda, c1688

Identifier: Coll-33/Folio C [209]
Scope and Contents Gregory learns more quadrature from Tchirnhausen.
Dates: c1688

Investigatio Curvae Celerrimi descensus, February 1697

Identifier: Coll-33/Folio C [219]
Scope and Contents Workpapers in which Gregory supposes that a solid's quickest line of descent through a curve is not the catenary or the cycloid, but the trochoid.
Dates: February 1697

Isaaci Newtoni tractatus de seriebus infinitis et convergentibus, c1685

Identifier: Coll-33/Quarto A [56(1)]
Scope and Contents Notes on Newton's 1671 tract on fluxions, copied out from John Craige. Their concluding section, on angular sections, is in English.
Dates: c1685

Jac: Gregorii Methodus Depomendi aequationem. Cont: 4. fol., s.d.

Identifier: Coll-33/Folio C [146]
Scope and Contents Gregory's writeup of two of his uncle's notions in algebra.
Dates: s.d.

Jo: Craige supplementii ad suam Methodum, in Epist: Auct: ad Colin Campbellum, c1696

Identifier: Coll-33/Folio C [202]
Scope and Contents Extract of a letter from Craige to Colin Campbell explaining a method of quadrature.
Dates: c1696

Jo: Keil Scheda de figura Radij in Medio difformi, 1684-1700

Identifier: Coll-33/Quarto A [30]
Scope and Contents A logarithmic treatment of light propagating through a uniform medium. John Keill was an Edinburgh native who earned distinction under David Gregory in mathematics and natural philosophy there, and who followed him to Oxford in 1691, where, like Gregory, he made a name for himself as an enthusiastic vindicator of Sir Isaac Newton. At Balliol College he demonstrated by experiments the validity of some of the chief propositions of Newton concerning light and colour, among other things. Oddly,...
Dates: 1684-1700