Nathaniel Bowditch (1773 - 1838)

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Birthplace: Salem, MA
Death: Died in Boston, MA
Managed by: Steven Avery Kelley
Last Updated:

About Nathaniel Bowditch

Nathaniel Bowditch

BOWDITCH, Nathaniel, mathematician, born in Salem, Massachusetts, 26 March 1773; died in Boston, Massachusetts, 16 March 1838. When only ten years old he left school to work in the shop of his father, who was a cooper, and soon afterward he became clerk in a ship-chandlery. In his school-days he had shown aptness for mathematics, and now, in the intervals of work, he continued his studies. After mastering arithmetic and elementary algebra he was taught the elements of navigation by a retired sailor. Wishing to read the "Principia" of Newton, he began in 1790 to study Latin without an instructor. He afterward learned to read French for a similar reason, and shocked his teacher, for some time, by altogether neglecting the pronunciation. Anxious to pursue a course of reading, and having no one to guide him, he read Ephraim Chambers's "Cyclopaedia" (2 vols., folio) from beginning to end. Although so fond of mathematics, he did not neglect other subjects; from youth he was an ardent admirer of Shakespeare, was familiar with the Bible, and in later life studied Spanish, Italian, and German, that he might enjoy the literature of those languages. He made a rule never to let his studies interfere with business, and early formed the methodical habits that distinguished him through life. On 11 January 1795, Bowditch sailed from Salem as clerk to Captain Frinee, el the ship "Henry," and before 1804 had made five long voyages to the East Indies, Portugal, and Mediterranean ports, serving as supercargo and afterward as master. During this time he industriously continued his studies, and it is related that during his third voyage, when the vessel was chased by a French privateer, Bowditch, who had been ordered to hand powder on deck, was seen quietly seated on a powder-keg, working out a problem with slate and pencil. He became proficient in navigation, and on his last voyage distinguished himself by bringing his vessel into Salem harbor in the midst of a snow-storm, with no guide but his reckoning and a single glimpse of Baker's island light. He undertook to correct Moore's work on navigation, but found so many errors that he concluded to publish one of his own, and the result was his "New American Practical Navigator" (1802), which became the standard work on the subject in this country and also, to a large extent, in England and France. During this year, chancing to be present at the annual commencement of Harvard, he was astonished to hear that the degree of master of arts had been conferred upon him, which pleased him more than any of his subsequent honors. After giving up the sea, he became president of the Essex fire and marine insurance company of Salem, Massachusetts. He declined professorships in Harvard in 1808, in the University of Virginia in 1818, and in West Point academy in 1820. While at Salem he made a beautiful chart of the harbor of that place and those of Beverly, Marblehead, and Manchester, and contributed twenty-three papers, mostly on astronomy, to the "Transactions" of the American academy. He also wrote during" this time many articles in the American edition of "Rees's Cyclopaedia." In 1814 he undertook his greatest work, a translation of Laplace's " Mecanique celeste," accompanied by a commentary elucidating obscure passages, giving interesting historical information, and bringing the whole subject down to the latest date. This commentary forms more than half the work, as produced by Dr. Bowditeh. It is said that there were at this time only two or three persons in the country capable of reading the original work critically. The greater part of this gigantic undertaking was finished in 1817 ; but publication would cost at least $12,000, a sum beyond the mathematician's means. In 1823, however, he was given the place of actuary to the Massachusetts hospital life insurance company of Boston, with a liberal salary, which enabled him to give his work to the world. Bowditch refused to publish the book by subscription, saying that he would rather spend $1,000 a year for such an object than in keeping a carriage. His wife and family promised to make any sacrifice necessary to its accomplishment, and he dedicated his translation to the former, stating that "without her approbation the work would not have been undertaken." The first volume appeared in 1829, the second in 1832, the third in 1834, and the fourth just after his death. The fifth, which Laplace had added to his work many years after the others, was subsequently issued under the care of Professor Benjamin Peirce. During the latter years of his life Dr. Bowditch was a trustee of the Boston athenaeum, president of the American academy of arts and sciences, and a member of the corporation of Harvard College, which had given him the degree of LL.D. in 1816. He was at his death a member of the royal societies of London and Edinburgh, the royal academies of Palermo and Berlin, the royal Irish society, the royal astronomical society of London, and the British association. He also twice held a seat in the state executive council of Massachusetts. Like many other mathematicians, Dr. Bowditch was fond of poetry. Bryant was his favorite American poet, and he considered the "Old Man's Funeral" one of the most beautiful pieces in the English language. His tomb and statue are in Mount Auburn cemetery, Cambridge, and his scientitle library is still preserved in Boston. Professor Pickering delivered a eulogy of him, including an analysis of his scientific publications, before the American academy, on 29 May 1838 (Boston, 1838); and another was delivered in Salem, by Judge Daniel A. White, at the request of the corporation of that city (Salem, 1838). See also " Memoir of Nathaniel Bowditeh," by his son, Nathaniel I. Bowditch (Boston, 1839) ; and "Discourse on the Life and Character of Nathaniel Bowditch," by Alexander Young (Boston, 1838). A full list of his mathematical papers may be found in the "Mathematical Monthly" (vol. ii., Cambridge, Massachusetts.).*His son, Nathaniel Ingersoll, author, born in Salem, Massachusetts, 17 January 1805; died in Brookline, Massachusetts, 16 April 1861, was graduated at Harvard in 1822, studied law, and was admitted to the bar in 1825, but soon left his practice and devoted himself to business as a conveyance. He became noted for accuracy and industry, and it is said that scarcely a transfer of real estate was made in Boston without his examination and approval of the title. He wrote altogether fifty-five folio volumes of land-titles, containing 30,000 pages, besides plans and maps. He gave much attention to public institutions in Boston, particularly to the Massachusetts general hospital, of which he published, at his own expense, a comprehensive history (1857). He had previously issued a memoir of his father (1839), which was also prefixed to the latter's translation of Laplace's "MScanique celeste." He also published "Suffolk Surnames" (1857; enlarged editions, 1858 and 1861). This work contains curious surnames met with by Mr. Bowditeh in his business. Its peculiarity is in the author's system of classification by the derivation of the names. Mr. Bowditch bestowed much of his large income upon charitable objects, including a gift of $70,000 to Harvard for founding scholarships, and a bequest of $2,000 to that College for the purchase of books.*Another son, Henry Ingersoll, physician, born in Salem, Massachusetts, 9 August. 1808, was graduated at Harvard in 1828, took his medical degree there in 1832, and studied in Paris from 1833 to 1835. He was professor of clinical medicine at Harvard from 1859 till 1867, chairman of the state board of health (1869-'79), and member of the national board in the latter year, surgeon of enrollment during the civil war, president of the American medical association in 1877, and physician at the Massachusetts general hospital and the Boston city hospital, where he served from 1868 to 1872. To Dr. Bowditch is due the discovery of the law of soil moisture as a potent cause of consumption in New England. He has also proved to the medical profession of this country and Europe that thoracentesis, in pleural effusions, if performed with Wyman's fine trocars and suction-pump, is not only innocuous, but at times saves life or gives great relief. Dr. Bowditch was made an abolitionist by the mobbing of Garrison in 1835, and worked earnestly in the anti-slavery cause. "He was the first in Boston," says Frederick Douglas, " to treat me as a man." He is the author of " Life of Nathaniel Bowditeh, for the Young" (1841); "The Young Stethoscopist " (Boston, 1846; 2d ed., New York, 1848); " Life of Lieutenant Nathaniel Bowditch" (50 copies, printed privately, 1865); "Public Hygiene in America," a centennial address at Philadelphia in 1876, and many articles in medical journals and papers read before the State board of health (1870-'8). He has translated " Louis on Typhoid " (2 vols.. Boston, 1836); " Louis on Phthisis" (1836); and " Maunoir on Cataract" (1837).*Nathaniel Bowditch's grandson, Henry Pickering, physician, born in Boston, Massachusetts, 4 April 1840, was graduated at Harvard in 1861, began the study of chemistry at Lawrence Scientific School, and in 1868 received the degree of M. died from Harvard Medical School. Soon after the beginning of the civil war he was commissioned second lieutenant in the 1st Massachusetts cavalry, and rose gradually until he attained the rank of major in the 5th Massachusetts cavalry, which office he resigned 3 June 1865. He then continued his studies under Jeffries Wyman at Lawrence Scientitle School, but his attention was attracted to medicine, which he has since followed. From 1868 to 1871 he studied physiology in France and Germany, principally at Leipsic, under Professor Ludwig. In 1871 he became assistant professor of physiology at Harvard Medical College, and in 1876 was elected to the full chair. Dr. Bowditch is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and of numerous medical societies. In 1876 he was elected a member of the Boston school board. He has published many papers on physiological subjects, which have appeared in the various medical journals, notably in the "Boston Medical and Surgical Journal."

Edited Appletons Encyclopedia, Copyright © 2001 VirtualologyTM

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  1. Note:
   Nathaniel Bowditch
   Born: 26 March 1773 in Salem, Massachusetts, USA
   Died: 16 March 1838 in Boston, USA
   Nathaniel Bowditch's father was Habakkuk Bowditch who was a cooper, th
   at is a maker and repairer of wooden casks. His mother was Mary Ingersol
   l. Although Nathaniel was born in Salem, Massachusetts, his family mov
   ed to Danvers, also in Massachusetts, while he was still a baby. After a f
   ew years, when Nathaniel was seven years old, they returned to Salem. As A
   lbree writes in [8]:-
   The first 50 years of Bowditch's life revolved around Salem, Massachusett
   s, a compact seafaring town along the picturesque north shore, 16 miles no
   rth of Boston.
   This was a hard time for the Bowditch family. Habakkuk Bowditch's busine
   ss collapsed and the family hit really hard times financially. Although Na
   thaniel went to school until he was ten years old, his formal education h
   ad to end at that point and he began working in his father's cooperage sho
   p. After two years of helping his father, Nathaniel became an apprentice c
   lerk in the ship's chandler shop of Hodges and Ropes in Salem in 1785. Th
   is shop dealt in provisions and supplies for ships. In 1790 Bowditch, ag
   ed seventeen by this time, changed his employers and began working for t
   he shop of Samuel C Ward.
   Although Bowditch was working as a clerk, he was educating himself through
   out this period. Reingold writes in [1]:-
   ... he acquired skill in languages and considerable knowledge of mathemati
   cs and other sciences through reading and study. Bowditch's scientific car
   eer was largely one of self-education; the United States of his day afford
   ed very little opportunity for research in astronomy and mathematical phys
   ics.
   There was one way in which Bowditch was lucky. Richard Kirwan (1733-181
   2) was an Irish chemist who made contributions in several areas of scienc
   e. Kirwan was elected to the Royal Society of London in 1780 and helped fo
   und the Royal Irish Society some years later. A privateer from Salem, th
   at is a sailor licensed to attack enemy shipping, had intercepted a ship c
   arrying Kirwan's library between Ireland and England and having captur
   ed it brought Kirwan's library back to Salem where it was available and us
   ed by Bowditch from June 1791. Bowditch had begun to learn algebra in 17
   87 and two years later he began to study the differential and integral cal
   culus. He learnt calculus so that he might study Newton's Principia a
   nd in 1790 he learnt Latin which was also necessary to enable him to re
   ad Newton's famous work. Later Bowditch learnt other languages in ord
   er to study mathematics in these languages; in particular he learnt Fren
   ch in 1792.
   Between 1795 and 1799 Bowditch made four sea voyages on merchant ships, a
   nd in 1802 he was in command of a merchant ship of which he was also a joi
   nt owner. Four of these voyages were to the East Indies while he made o
   ne voyage to Europe. The fourth journey was to Philippines while his la
   st voyage was to Sumatra. This was not a period when Bowditch put his stud
   ies to one side, on the contrary there was much time at sea for him to car
   ry on his studies and he perfected his French at this time. On his voya
   ge of 1802-03 he read the first volume of Laplace's Traité de mécanique cé
   leste which had been published in 1798. By June 1806 Bowditch had read t
   he first four of Laplace's five volumes (the fifth volume was not publish
   ed by Laplace until 1825).
   In March 1798 while Bowditch was back in Salem between voyages, he marri
   ed Elizabeth Boardman but sadly she died seven months after the weddin
   g. In 1800, before he made his last voyage, Bowditch married for the seco
   nd time. His second marriage was to Mary Ingersoll who was a cousin and to
   gether they had eight children.
   Bowditch was now coming up in the world and he gave up his career as a sai
   lor in 1804 to move into the business world. In that year he became presid
   ent of the Essex Fire and Marine Insur

Other References

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Nathaniel Bowditch's Timeline

1773
March 26, 1773
Salem, MA
1798
March 25, 1798
Age 24
Salem, Essex Co., MA
1800
October 28, 1800
Age 27
Salem, Essex, Massachusetts, United States
1805
January 17, 1805
Age 31
Salem, Essex, MA, USA
1806
October 15, 1806
Age 33
Salem, Essex, Massachusetts, United States
1808
August 9, 1808
Age 35
Salem, Essex, Massachusetts, United States
1809
December 1, 1809
Age 36
Salem, Essex Co., MA
1816
1816
Age 42
1818
August 5, 1818
Age 45
Salem, Essex, MA, USA
1838
March 16, 1838
Age 64
Boston, MA