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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Pell, Morris Birkbeck (1827–1879)

by I. S. Turner

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

Morris Birkbeck Pell (1827-1879), professor of mathematics, was born on 31 March 1827 at Albion, Illinois, United States of America, son of Gilbert Titus Pell and his wife Elizabeth, née Birkbeck. His maternal grandfather Morris Birkbeck (1764-1825), English social reformer, had founded the prairie settlement of Albion. Gilbert Titus joined it, prospered and in 1822-24 and 1828-39 was a member of the 'Convention Legislature' of Illinois. In 1835 the family separated and Mrs Pell took her children first to Poughkeepsie, New York, then to Plymouth, England, in 1841, where Morris attended the New Grammar School. On 11 March 1845 as a sizar he entered St John's College, Cambridge (B.A., 1849). A senior wrangler in mathematics and second Smith's prizeman, he was elected a fellow of St John's on 18 March 1850. On 17 February 1852 he married Jane Juliana, daughter of James Rusden, naval officer of Plymouth.

In 1852 Pell was chosen from twenty-six candidates as first professor of mathematics and natural philosophy in the University of Sydney at a salary of £825 with allowances and students' fees extra. On 16 March he sailed in the Asiatic with his wife, mother and two sisters, arriving at Sydney in July. Pell found the mathematical preparation of university students low because of the poor state of secondary education. He developed courses in mathematics at pass and honours levels. The mathematical topics for the first bachelor of arts degree awarded by the university included arithmetic in all its branches, logarithms, algebra to quadratic equations and the first four books of Euclid. The subjects in his honours courses were more diversified and advanced as Pell kept in touch with the courses being offered in Cambridge, London and Edinburgh. They also reflected his own research interests: calculus of variations, probability, finite differences, differential geometry, optics and astronomy. He specialized in problems on mortality rates and life expectation. He published Geometrical Illustrations of the Differential Calculus for his students and won repute as a fine teacher.

In 1854 in evidence to a Legislative Council select committee on education Pell advocated the opening of a secular grammar school. In 1859 he testified to the Legislative Assembly select committees on the Sydney Grammar School and the University of Sydney on the composition of the senate, the adverse effect of clergy on enrolments, the new buildings, the value of liberal studies in the education of businessmen and squatters, and the beneficial effect of the university on secondary education. His evidence resulted in ex officio membership of the university senate for professors. He was a member of it in 1861-77 and after resignation was re-elected to the senate in 1878 by members of convocation.

Pell was chairman of a commission to inquire into the Surveyor-General's Department in 1855, a member of the commission on a fatal railway accident in 1858, chairman of the commission on methods of testing marine steam-boilers in 1868, the Hunter River Floods Commission in 1869-70, the board inquiring into the land titles branch of the Registrar-General's Department in 1870 and chairman of the Sydney City and Suburban Sewage and Health Board in 1875-77. Pell had been admitted to the Bar on 2 December 1863 and from 1872 was an examiner in law at the university. In 1854 he had become actuarial consultant to the Australian Mutual Provident Society and in 1870 was a director and consulting actuary of the Mutual Life Association of Australasia. He was connected with such business enterprises as mining, brickmaking, glassmaking and manufacturing fertilisers by crushing bones.

A member of the Philosophical Society from 1856, Pell served on its council in 1858. He was a member and secretary of the Royal Society of New South Wales from 1867 and a member of its council from 1869. In its Transactions he published papers 'On the Rates of Mortality and Expectation of Life in New South Wales' (1867) and 'On the Constitution of Matter' (1871). He also published in the Journal of the Institute of Actuaries, London, 'On the Distribution of Profits in Mutual Insurance Societies' (1869) and 'On the Institute of Actuaries' life tables' (1879) among other papers.

For many years almost crippled by an injury to his spine, Pell resigned in mid-1877 as professor of mathematics on a pension of £412 10s. He died of progressive paralysis on 7 May 1879 at Glebe and was buried in the Balmain cemetery. He was survived by his wife, five sons and three daughters. His goods were valued for probate at £4000, and he left an annuity of £80 to his estranged wife Julia, then residing in Tasmania, provided that she did not return to Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Flower, History of the English Settlement in Edwards County, Illinois, E. B. Washburne ed (Chicago, 1882)
  • H. E. Barff, A Short Historical Account of the University of Sydney
  • in Connection with the Jubilee Celebrations 1852-1902 (Syd, 1902)
  • E. E. Sparks (ed), The English Settlement in the Illinois (Lond, 1907)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Council, New South Wales), University of Sydney, 1853, 1
  • Select Committee on Education, Evidence, 1854, 2
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1858, 1, 327, 3, 857, 1876-77, 1, 241
  • A.M.P. Messenger, Jan 1931.

Citation details

I. S. Turner, 'Pell, Morris Birkbeck (1827–1879)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 29 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

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