Lecture given by Professor John Fauvel at the University of Virginia on April 15, 1999. Professor Fauvel, who died in 2001, was a Senior Lecturer in Mathematics at the Open University in Milton Keynes, England. A former president of the British Society for the History of Mathematics, he was a noted authority on the history of mathematics.

Thomas Jefferson, born in 1743 on the Virginian frontier to a wealthy surveyor and land-owner and his English wife, went at the age of 17, in 1760, to William and Mary College in Williamsburg, the second oldest college, after Harvard, in the American colonies. Here his abilities were recognised and nurtured by one of the great influences upon his life, his mathematics teacher the Scots-born William Small. In his autobiography Jefferson wrote a warm tribute to his teacher:

It was my great good fortune, and what probably fixed the destinies of my life that Dr Wm. Small of Scotland was then professor of Mathematics, a man profound in most of the useful branches of science, with a happy talent of communication correct and gentlemanly manners, & an enlarged & liberal mind. He, most happily for me, became soon attached to me & made me his daily companion when not engaged in the school; and from his conversation I got my first views of the expansion of science & of the system of things in which we are placed.

Jefferson's mathematics teacher, William Small (1734-1775), was indeed a remarkable man. A graduate of Marischal College, Aberdeen, Small taught at William and Mary College for six years, from 1758 to 1764, and left a great impression on its teaching system, its curricula and in the memories of the students. On returning to England, Small practised medicine in Birmingham, where he was the centre of a celebrated group of intellectuals and engineers called the Lunar Society. It was he who introduced Boulton to Watt and thus set in train Birmingham's best-known engineering partnership. When he died at the age of only 41, in 1775, his friends were devastated: his friend Erasmus Darwin (Charles Darwin's grandfather) wrote of him in even more glowing terms than Jefferson, speaking of Small as a man

whose strength of reasoning, quickness of invention, learning in the discoveries of other men, and integrity of heart (which is worth them all), had no equal.

So the two years Jefferson spent at William and Mary College in the early 1760s happily coincided with the time there of a teacher not only William Small with mathematical ability but of great moral stature, and it is this combination which seems to have had a rich and wholesome influence on Jefferson. It's clear also that Small, for his part, saw something in the gawky youth worth cultivating and encouraging. In fact Small was teaching almost everything at the College, because of various turmoils in its organisation at the time, and this example of a polymathic intellectual who took all knowledge for his province also came at a crucial time in Jefferson's development.

Among the things Jefferson learned at William and Mary College was mathematics and natural philosophy, as indeed was his hope and intention before setting off—in his earliest surviving letters we find him writing to his guardian John Harvie [Jan 14th 1760] that one of the advantages of his going to college would be that he would "learn something of the Mathematics". As well as Euclidean mathematics, whose text was Euclid's Elements, in some 17th or 18th century edition (maybe Keill's), he learned Newtonian mathematics, for which the text was William Emerson's Doctrine of fluxions, and Newtonian science, whose texts were two of Newton's great works, Principia and Opticks.

Page design: Julie Riddleberger, June 1999