Alfred Barnard Basset


Born: 25 July 1854 in London, England
Died: 5 December 1930 in Fledborough Hall, Holyport, Berkshire, England

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Alfred Barnard Basset was the son of Alfred Basset (1828-1867) and Anne Dennison (1834-1873). Alfred Basset Sr., the son of a warehouseman, was born in Croydon, Surrey, on 19 October 1828. He became a wealthy man as a partner in the firm Basset and Harris who were corn factors undertaking international trade in grain. Anne Dennison, born in Tottenham, Middlesex, on 26 January 1834, was a servant in a house in Hackney, Middlesex, in 1851. She married Alfred Basset in 1853 and they had three children, Alfred Barnard Basset, the subject of this biography, born 25 July 1854 and one younger daughter, Ann Gertrude Basset, born in 1856 but died at the age of two years on 12 December 1858.

Alfred Basset Sr. died on 28 July 1867 and Anne Basset died in 1873 the year that her son Alfred Barnard Basset had matriculated at Trinity College, University of Cambridge on 18 February 1873. He was admitted as a pensioner, that is an undergraduate who pays for his own keep. In 1876 he became a scholar, that is he was awarded a scholarship to cover the cost of his university education. He had already decided on a law career and he was admitted at Lincoln's Inn on 8 January 1875. He graduated from the University of Cambridge in 1877, being the 13th Wrangler, that is ranked 13th in the list of First Class mathematics students. One wonders how much he is writing from his own examination experiences when he writes [4]:-

One of the difficulties, which the Examiners for the Mathematical Tripos have to contend against, is the tendency on the part of the Candidates to devote their time to learning certain pieces of book-work, which are likely to be set, instead of endeavouring to acquire an accurate and thorough knowledge of the fundamental facts and principles of the subjects, which they take up; and well-selected examples and problems illustrating the book-work are of great assistance to an examiner, in enabling him to discriminate between candidates, who have acquired a perfunctory knowledge of a subject, and those who have endeavoured to master it. But it would be a fallacy to imagine, that the utility of examples and problems is exclusively confined to the particular examination in which they are set; or that the practical value of a problem is to be estimated solely by the scientific value of the result, which it embodies. The existence of a large collection of examples and problems, is of great assistance to future generations of students, in enabling them to grasp the fundamental principles of a subject, and to acquire facility in the application of mathematical analysis to physics; and the severe course of training, which the University of Cambridge extracts from students of the higher branches of Mathematics, is of inestimable benefit to Science, in producing a body of men, who are thoroughly conversant with dynamical principles, and are able to employ with ease the more recondite processes of mathematical analysis.
Basset was called to the bar at Lincoln's Inn in 1879 and he became a Equity Draftsman and Conveyancer. He did not continue in this profession, however, for he had inherited a considerable estate from his parents and had no need to earn a living. He therefore decided to devote his life to mathematical research. On 11 April 1882 Basset married Edith Sarah Irwin Dechaundre who had been born in Fitzwilliam Square, Dublin, in 1865. Alfred and Edith Basset had two daughters, Almina Caroline Georgina Basset, born 9 November 1901, and Effie Alfreda Ilma Basset, born on 26 June 1903. The family lived at Fledborough Hall, Holyport, Berkshire. We quote from [8], written at the time Basset and his family were living in the Hall:-
Holyport is a hamlet in the parish of Bray, 1 mile south-south-west from Bray and 2 miles south from Maidenhead; it contains a Wesleyan chapel. ... Fledborough Hall, the seat of Alfred Barnard Basset, esq. F.R.S. is built on the site of an old house, called Bourne Bridge Lodge, which formerly belonged to Sir Robert Sidney kt.; the present house is named after the manor of Fledborough in Nottinghamshire.
We get a brief indication of the life that Basset and his family experienced from the census of 1901 and the census of 1911. At the time of the 1901 census Basset and his wife had no children and they were living in Fledborough Hall with seven servants. Two of the servants are men, a domestic butler and a footman, and five are women, three housemaids, a cook and a kitchen maid. By the time of the 1911 census both their daughters have been born. They still have seven servants, two men and five women, but now the women are head housemaid, second housemaid, ladies maid, kitchen maid, and cook. The two men are still a butler and a footman.

Soon after his marriage, Basset devoted himself to undertaking research in mathematics [9]:-

From 1883 onwards Basset produced a succession of papers on applied mathematics, mainly on subjects suggested by current discussions. The 'classical' hydrodynamics had at that time a great fascination for a number of rising mathematicians, and Basset's own contributions in this kind to the Proceedings of the Cambridge Philosophical Society, the London Mathematical Society, and the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London were of distinct merit. Among the numerous subjects which he treated we may mention the equilibrium of revolving fluids, and the theorems of Dirichlet and Dedekind, the interest in which had been revived by Bryan, Greenhill, and Love. At a later stage he attacked the theory of elastic plates and shells, which was then a matter of controversy, and was led to recognise independently the true explanation of a rather serious difficulty. Mention should also be made of his work on viscosity, and in particular on Boussinesq's problem of the variable slow motion of a sphere in a viscous liquid. These are only a few items out of the long list which appears in the Royal Society's catalogue.
We have listed twelve of Basset's papers, together with their abstracts, ten of which are on the topics referred to in the above quote, at THIS LINK.

In fact in 1893 Basset wrote Publication of scientific papers where he gave his ideas about publishing. He wrote [5]:-

The only feasible scheme seems to be the publication of a digest of papers by the co-operation of the various scientific societies; and, if thought desirable, papers published in foreign countries might also be included. In order to prepare the way for such a digest, I should strongly recommend that, in future, all societies should follow the example of the Incorporated Society for Law Reporting, and require authors to append a head-note to their papers, briefly setting forth the object of the investigation. Every three of four years the titles and head-notes of all papers relating to each separate branch of science should be copied out and arranged in proper order, and a series of digests of each separate branch of science should be published. Mathematicians would thus be enabled to purchase the mathematical digests a, and the chemists the chemical one. They would thereby be in a position to find out at a glance what papers have been published on their own special subjects during that period.
In 1888 Basset gave an historical introduction to hydrodynamics in his book A treatise on hydrodynamics, with numerous examples (1888). We give a version of this "History of Hydrodynamics" at THIS LINK.

This 2-volume 1888 text by Basset was the first of five books which he wrote. It is very much to Basset's credit that this work was of such quality that the 2-volume monograph was reprinted in 1961, 73 years after it was first published, by Dover Publications, New York. Louis Melville Milne-Thomson had by this time retired from his chair of mathematics at the Royal Naval College in Greenwich and was leading a very active research group at the University of Arizona. He wrote the following review of the reprinted text by Basset [11]:-

This work is a classic and a model of compact analysis and clear writing. The book was still in use as a text at Cambridge in the first decade of the present century. Although it refers to the state of the science as it existed in the interval 1884-1888, the book is still useful as a work of reference to many matters which by then had assumed a definitive form.
You can read Basset's Preface to A treatise on hydrodynamics, with numerous examples at THIS LINK.

Basset wrote a second work on hydrodynamics, An elementary treatise on hydrodynamics and sound (1890), which was not intended, as the 1888 monograph had been, as a record of the current state of progress in the topic but this second work was intended for students of the mathematical tripos at Cambridge. Two years later Basset published A treatise on physical optics (1892) [9]:-

... a treatise on physical optics, another of his favourite subjects, to which he devoted immense pains, but which scarcely met with the recognition which it undoubtedly deserved. 
You can read Basset's Preface to all five of his books at THIS LINK.

Later in his life Basset became interested in pure mathematical topics and published papers on geometry as well as two textbooks. He published An elementary treatise on cubic and quartic curves (1901) in which he wrote [6]:-

The present work originated in certain notes, made about twenty-five years ago, upon the properties of some of the best-known higher plane curves ...
This comment means that his interest in these topics on geometry went back to his undergraduate days at Cambridge. The review of this book by P Worsley Wood is quite hard-hitting [12]:-
The earlier chapters of the book mainly reproduce some of the results contained in the first half of Salmon's 'Higher Plane Curves'; the methods of obtaining these results are novel. The treatment of Plücker's equations is specially striking, and equally unsatisfactory; the author would, in fact, have done better to have omitted his first four chapters and given a reference to Salmon's work in the preface. ... The whole question of plane cubics and quartics is nowhere seriously undertaken; elliptic functions are not used, and some of the analysis is of a very clumsy character. The subject matter is so diffuse that a good index is indispensable to anybody using the book as a text-book: but the book cannot be recommended as a text-book, so perhaps the absence of an index is immaterial. The appearance of this treatise once again emphasises the necessity for a new edition of Salmon's 'Higher Plane Curves', brought up to date with the researches of the past twenty years. Now that the learned author is no more, perhaps some enterprising geometer will undertake the task: practically, the only modern work on the subject is Fiedler's German translation of Salmon, and a comparison of the contents of the original work and its translation is sufficient to show how far the subject has grown in the last few years.
Basset's fifth and final book was A treatise on the geometry of surfaces (1910). Again this geometry text seems not to have matched the quality of his applied mathematics works.

In 1889 Basset was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of London. He was an active member of the London Mathematical Society and served as vice-president in 1892-93. Later in his life, however, his interest in current mathematical topics seemed to fade and he was less often seen at mathematical meetings. No doubt this was caused, at least in part, by his failing health but family tragedies must have contributed. In 1917 his daughter Almina died at the age of 16. His wife Edith died in 1929 and Basset lived out the final years of his life in his residence at Fledborough Hall. When he died in December 1930 he left £65794 to his surviving daughter Effie Alfreda Ilma Basset. This is a large amount of money, being worth over £4 million today. Effie Basset married Clarence Aylmer Underwood John French on 20 July 1936 in Monaco. She died in May 1985.

Article by: J J O'Connor and E F Robertson

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List of References (12 books/articles)

Mathematicians born in the same country

Additional Material in MacTutor

  1. Some of Alfred Basset's papers
  2. Alfred Basset's History of hydrodynamics
  3. Prefaces of Alfred Barnard Basset's five books

Honours awarded to Alfred Barnard Basset
(Click below for those honoured in this way)
1. Lecturer at the EMS 


Other Web sites
  1. MathSciNet Author profile
  2. zbMATH entry
  3. ERAM Jahrbuch entry

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JOC/EFR January 2019
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School of Mathematics and Statistics
University of St Andrews, Scotland

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