The Renaissance Mathematicus

The vexed problem of nationality in the history of science


People seem to like/want/need heroes in sport, culture, politics, in fact in almost every area of life including the history of science. In particular for many people this desire for heroes is closely tied to feelings of national pride – a great Argentinian footballer, a great German composer, a great American boxer, a great English physicist and so on and so forth. This identification of people, whatever their field of activity, with their nationality is problematic for historians of science both geographically and historically

The earth did not come into existence about four and a half billion years ago with the borders of the national states stamped into its surface. In fact even within the one hundred to two hundred thousand years that Homo sapiens have occupied the earth the concept of a nation state is, in historical terms, a very recent one. Also within the time since nation states have existed their borders have not been static but have ebbed and flowed like the tide; states coming into and going out of existence down the centuries.

Brabant and Savoy, two important European states that existed in the High Middle Ages and Early Modern Period have long since disappeared into the mists of history. Looking at the modern map of Europe, The Netherlands only came into existence in the late sixteenth century, whilst its neighbour Belgium was created in 1815. Germany only really became a nation state following the fall of Hitler and the Nazis in 1945 and was for several decades two nation states, East and West, which only became finally united on 3 October 1990.

Duchy of Brabant 1477
Source Wikimedia Commons

The early years of Wikipedia saw several epic battles over the nationality of scientific heroes, the most notorious being over Nicolaus Copernicus, which became so vitriolic that it was a news item on BBC Radio 4’s flagship news magazine, The Today Programme. The Poles and Germans carrying on a dispute that dates back to the late eighteenth century; a dispute that is totally barmy, as he was actually neither Polish nor German, as I explained in an earlier post. The nationality of the Islamic mathematician Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī, who gave algebra and the algorithm their names, is also disputed between Persia and Uzbekistan. The astronomer Johannes Hevelius, a native of Danzig, or should that be Gdańsk, is like Copernicus claimed by both Germany and Poland. The Jesuit mathematician, astronomer and physicist Ruđer Josip Bošković (English: Roger Joseph Boscovich) is claimed by Croatia, Serbia and Italy, although it should be noted he became a naturalised French citizen and the end of his life. Anther astronomer with dual nationality is the Italian Giovanni Domenico Cassini who ended his life as the Frenchman Jean-Dominique Cassini. Although it is debateable whether it is correct to call Cassini an Italian, as Italy only became a united national state in 1861, about one hundred and fifty years after his death

The latest case of, potentially, disputed nationality that caught my eye and generated this post occurred in an article on the BBC News website, The Irish novel that seduced the USSR, the story of the novel The Gadfly by Ethel Voynich. Don’t Panic! The Renaissance Mathematicus has not metamorphosed overnight into a blog for literature criticism, you might understand when I say that Ethel Voynich was born Ethel Lilian Boole the youngest of the five daughters of the mathematician and logician George Boole and his wife the proto-feminist and educationalist Mary Everest-Boole. What provoked this post was that the article describes Ethel Voynich as an Irish writer.

Ethel Lilian Voynich née Boole

Ethel Lilian Boole was born 11 May 1864 in the city of Cork in the Irish province of Munster, so she is Irish, right? Well, maybe not. My eldest sister was born in Rangoon in Burma, so she is Burmese, right? Actually she isn’t, she was born British and has remained British all of her life. Likewise, my brother was born in Lahore, so he’s Pakistani, right. Once again no, he was born British and remained British up to his death two years ago. Both of them were born in what was then British India of British parents, although my mother like my sister was born in Rangoon, and so both of them were automatically British citizens. My bother’s potential nationality is made even more complex by the fact that when he was born Lahore was in India but is now in Pakistan.

Let’s take a closer look at Ethel Lilian. At the time of her birth Ireland was part of the United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland, a country ruled by a single government in Westminster, London. Her father, George Boole, was born in Lincoln and was thus English.

Georg Boole
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Her mother Mary Everest, the niece of Georg Everest for whom the mountain is named, was born in Wickwar in Gloucestershire and so was also English, although her family is Welsh. The family name, by the way, is pronounced Eve-rest and not Ever-est.

Mary Everest Boole
Source: Wikimedia Commons

To complicate matters, George Boole died 8 December 1864 just seven months after Ethel Lilian’s birth and Mary immediately returned to England with her five daughters. Ethel Lilian grew up in England and never returned to Ireland and identified as English not Irish. Given her parentage it is doubtful whether she should be referred to as Irish at all, despite having been born in Cork.

It is even more of a stretch to call The Gadfly an Irish novel. Ethel Lilian travelled extensively throughout Europe, as an adult and the novel, which is set in Italy and features an English hero, was first published in New York and then London before being translated into Russian, whereupon it became a mega best seller in Russia. To call it an Irish novel purely because of Ethel Lilian’s birth and seven-month residency in Cork is in my opinion a bridge too far.

Cover of the first publication of E. L. Vojnich’s novel «The Gadfly»
Source: Wikimedia Commons

All five of Boole’s daughters led fascinating and historically significant lives. You can read a short account of Those Amazing Boole Girls on my friend Pat’s Blog or for a fuller account I heartily recommend Desmond MacHale’s excellent biography, The Life and Work of George Boole: A Prelude to the Digital Age. The family history is dealt with even more fully in Gerry Kennedy’s The Booles and the Hintons: Two Dynasties That Helped Shape the Modern World, which I haven’t read yet (it’s on the infinite reading list) but which has received excellent reviews.