Boole - Ancestors & Descendants

GEORGE BOOLE (1815-1864) researched by Rev R.H.P.Boole

It is given to few people in this world to have their names become adjectives, without a capital letter. George Boole is among their company with Boolean algebra named after him. Without doubt he is the most famous of the Boole family. He was described to me by Canon Peter Binnall, sub-dean of Lincoln Cathedral "as the most eminent Citizen that Lincoln has so far produced". He was born in Lincoln on November 2nd 1815 and had a very simple education. After leaving his local Elementary School he went for a short time to a commercial school but his real interests were linguistic. To this end he took lessons in Latin from a Lincoln bookseller, Mr. William Brooke who became one of his closest friends. He then taught himself Greek and later French and German from borrowed books. When he started to study the classics Boole wanted to be a clergyman. According to E.T.Bell, who wrote an imaginative but very readable account of Boole in his "Men of Mathematics", this desire was inspired by a snobbish wish to raise himself into a higher class of society than that into which he had been born.

There is, however, not the slightest evidence in Boole’s papers or letters or in anything that his contemporaries wrote about him that this was true.

On the contrary, all his published non-mathematical work, as well as the accounts of those who knew him, show him to be a person whose thoughts were continually directed to, and his acts directed by his religious convictions so that it was very natural that he should want to enter the Church. Contemporaries who have recorded their impressions of his sense of social distinctions agree that he had none at all. Mary Everest Boole wrote of him: "He had very heterodox notions on the subject of the selection of one's acquaintances. He simply ignored all theories which suppose that one is to keep one's visiting list within certain social levels; only he had as little as possible to do with rich people who made a display of their wealth, and refused ever to let his children visit them. I knew the mothers and sisters of students in all ranks of life. I have had people to spend an evening with me of whom he could tell me nothing except that he "had met them at a railway station, and thought they might like to see the telescope", or he had "gone into a shop and found the man behind the counter intelligent, so he had asked him to come and have some more talk about optics". I have had a street band from town brought down to lunch in our garden". George Boole started to read mathematics when he was an assistant at a small school in Doncaster. We next find him holding a similar position at a boarding school at Waddington near Lincoln. Later he started his own school in Minster Yard, Lincoln and we find all the family, with the exception of Charles Boole, in residence there at the census of 1841.

A notice concerning the school appeared in the Lincoln Rutland and Stamford Mercury of January 19th 1849:

Mr. Boole's Academy, Minster Yard, Lincoln.

Terms for Board and English Education:

For Pupils under 10 years of age per annum 24 guineas
Above that age and under 14 per annum 26 guineas
Above 14 years of age per annum 28 guineas

For Parlour Boarders, an addition of one half to the terms above stated.
Latin, Greek, French, Drawings etc. will involve an extra charge

Tbe School will re-open on Wednesday, January 24th. The arrangement of

the studies for the ensuing term, with further particulars, may be learnt on application.

A turning point came towards the end of 1849 when the senate of the new Queen’s College, Cork showed good sense in offering the degreeless George Boole the chair of mathematics and the deanship of science.



The Lincolnshire Chronicle of August 17th 1849 reported

"The public will be glad to learn that Mr. Geo. Boole, of this City, whose mathematical attainments and writings have been known to the Mathematical World for some time, has been appointed to a Professorship in Mathematics in Queen's College Cork. It is understood that the appointment is sufficiently valuable to enable Mr, Boole to give undivided attention to the study in which he has distinguished himself."

His father had died on December 12th 1848 and his mother could not be prevailed upon to cross the Irish channel. He therefore made provision for her maintenance and comfort during the reminder of her days.

George Boole's  death was reported in the Lincolnshire Chronicle of December 16th 1864:-

"'The late Professor Boole, FRS - This week our obituary contains the announcement of the death of the above eminent mathematician, who was well known and highly esteemed in Lincoln, where he kept an academy for several years. As the 'Times' truly says, he was one of those men known to a limited circle, but within that circle the object of an affectionate respect approaching to veneration. The Professorship of Mathematics which Dr. Boole held in Queen's College, Cork, would not of itself make the holder celebrated, and the worked which he published from time to time dealt with such abstruse questions of mathematical and metaphysical inquiry that they could be appreciated only by a few. Those who were capable of understanding their value held him in the highest estimation, and will look upon the premature death of their author as a grave loss to the world of thought… But the quality which, perhaps,

most marked him out from his fellows was an intellectual modesty such as he once described as 'inseparable from a pure devotion to truth'. It was not that he was unduly shy or retiring, but that he appeared absolutely insensible to his claims upon the attention of others. Death has checked the development of his character here, but the memory of his gifts and graces will be jealously preserved by those he has left behind, and most of all by a widow and children now sorrowing...

The subjoined acrostic, Written by Mrs. Austin Turner (sister to Mr. R. Hall), was given to Professor Boole in 1846, long before he left Lincoln for Cork:-

"Great men, thy fame will live when thou art gone,
Ennobling thee far more than sculptur'd stone.
O'er thee no marble monument need rise
Relating thy great work to vulgar eyes;
Genius will bid thy name for ever live;
Envy to thee its praises then will give.
But thou willt yet, I hope, the merit reap
Of thy vast works e're thou in death shall sleep.
On thee may honours multiply and fall,
Long, long may'st thou in health enjoy them all,
Enrich'd as is thy mind with wisdom's call."

                         St Michael's Anglican Church, Blackrock in 2003



St Michael's Church and the Memorial for George Boole 

-original research by Rev R.H.P. Boole

Towards the end of November 1864 George Boole walked from his house, Lichfield Cottage, Ballintemple to the College in Cork, a distance of little more than two miles, in drenching rain and lectured in his wet clothes. The result was a feverish cold, which soon turned to pneumonia and in little more than a week he died on December 8th 1864.

His widow Mary placed a marble tablet to his memory in St. Michael's Church, Blackrock, the inscription on which is as follows:-

To the memory of George Boole, LL.D., FRS First Professor of Mathematics in the Queen's College, Cork, in whom the highest order of intellect cultivated by unwearied industry produced the fruits of deep humility and childlike trust. He was born in Lincoln on the 2nd Nov. 1815 and died at Ballintemple on 8th Dec. 1864.

"For ever 0 Lord Thy word is settled in Heaven"


George Boole is buried in the grounds of  St Michael's Anglican Church, Blackrock and is located on the left hand site not far past the buildings entrance.

Images courtesy of Eamonn Clifford

The boy who wouldn't stay 'in his place'

Author and copyright to:  Chet Raymo
Published: Monday, July 23, 1990
Page: 42

Inside the entrance of the Boole Library, at Ireland's University College in Cork, the watchful eyes of George Boole gaze down on visitors from the stern but kindly portrait that hangs in a place of honor.

The name will be familiar to every computer scientist. George Boole's algebra of logic underlies the design of all modern computers. The memorial plaque on his home in Cork boldly calls him "the father of computer science."

That's a claim to fame sufficient for anyone, but the story of George Boole -- and his family -- is extraordinary for other reasons.

In two ways Boole's story illustrates the power of the human mind to escape the commonplace. With nothing but pluck and hard work the poor son of a shoemaker lifted himself to a professorship of higher mathematics. And in his mathematical researches, Boole freed algebra from its long servitude to arithmetic. No less an authority than Bertrand Russell credited Boole with the discovery of pure mathematics.

Russell's appraisal may be an exaggeration, but no one underestimates Boole's contribution to the 20th century. His mathematics of invariants became part of the inspiration for Einstein's theory of relativity. And the "Laws of Thought," which Boole published in 1854, provides the language for digital computing.

Boole was born in Lincoln, England, in the year of Waterloo, into poverty no less restricting than that of his American contemporary, Abraham Lincoln. In 19th-century America, a boy might be encouraged to better his position in life, but in class-bound Britain it was expected that sons or daughters of the lower classes should stay uncomplainingly in their places.

Boole wanted out, but with no clear idea where he could go. With no education beyond primary school, Boole taught himself Latin, Greek, French and German. His father, a man of wide-ranging curiosity, inspired Boole to study mathematics and natural philosophy. At the age of 19, the precocious youngster opened his own school at Lincoln.

Boole learned mathematics by reading (in French) the works of the great French masters, Lacroix, Laplace and Lagrange, plodding by candlelight through horrendously demanding texts, forced to invent for himself all of the mathematical preliminaries he had never learned in school.

Perhaps because he was self-taught, Boole noticed things about the symmetry and beauty of mathematics that the great mathematicians had missed, most notably the germ of the theory of invariance, which later became the basis for Einsteinian relativity.

The originality of Boole's work was soon recognized, and in 1849 he was appointed professor of mathematics at the newly established Queen's College in Cork, Ireland, now University College, where he remained for the rest of his life. In 1854 he published the work for which he is now chiefly known, "An Investigation of the Laws of Thought."

The gist of Boole's contribution was to recognize that the symbols of algebra, such as X, Y, + and x, need not refer only to numbers or operations on numbers. Boole applied them to the terms and categories of human thought.

His free-ranging algebra eventually become the basis for the theory of digital computers, but in the short run it helped liberate mathematics from the tyranny of numbers. After Boole (and his contemporary William Rowan Hamilton), mathematicians felt free to explore abstract worlds of their own invention.

Boole died at age 50, only 10 years after the publication of his great book, leaving behind a grieving wife and five young daughters. Anyone who wishes to argue that scientific talent is genetically transmitted can do no better that refer to the daughters of George and Mary Boole.

Alicia became a mathematician of considerable talent, like her father self- taught. Lucy was a chemist, the first female professor of chemistry at the Royal Free Hospital, London. Margaret is best remembered for her son, the prominent physicist Geoffrey Ingram Taylor. Mary's husband, the mathematician Charles Hinton, wrote on worlds of dimensions other than three; he was probably inspired by his mother-in-law and her daughters. Most interesting of all is Ethel, whose life as a political radical, revolutionary, lover of master spy Sydney Reilly, and best-selling novelist deserves a book to herself.

Boole's wife Mary, herself only 32 at the time of his death, went on to make eccentric but interesting contributions to the psychology of education.

The key word here is liberation. In using his mind to liberate himself from burdens of poverty and class, George Boole helped liberate mathematics from restricting conventions of the past. He also pointed the way for his wife and five daughters to chart unconventional courses at a time when women were expected to act in strict subservience to men.

Thanks to Chet Raymo for permission to use this article