Symposium & Exhibition: “‘A man of no ordinary attainment’: the life and work of Robert Leslie Ellis” (Cambridge, 28 September 2018)

6 september 2018

Almost forgotten today, the English polymath Robert Leslie Ellis (1817-1859) was lauded by his contemporaries as a ‘prodigy of universal genius’ and an ‘ideal of a University man’. This meeting explores for the first time the whole of Ellis’s life and work, drawing on his published oeuvre and unpublished manuscripts, notebooks and correspondence.

Having been privately educated at Bath, reading Xenophon and Virgil and solving equations from the age of 10, Ellis went up to Trinity College, Cambridge in 1836, where he became a pupil of George Peacock and William Hopkins.

A great academic career beckoned; he helped D.F. Gregory to found the Cambridge Mathematical Journal in 1837, graduated Senior Wrangler in 1840 and was elected Fellow of Trinity shortly afterwards. During the 1840s, Ellis published major papers on functional and differential equations and probability theory and took on the co-editing, with James Spedding and Douglas Denon Heath, of Francis Bacon’s Works. From 1847, Ellis’ health deteriorated and in 1849, aged 32, he returned home from a grand tour as an invalid, having been struck by rheumatic fever at San Remo. The rest of his short life was spent at Anstey Hall, Trumpington, where he saw much of his friends John Grote and William Walton, to whom he dictated his thoughts on topics ranging from etymology and bees’ cells to Roman law and a projected Chinese dictionary.


Ellis’ papers provide a rich picture of his biography – youth, education, family, friendships, illness, character, scholarship – and cover a wide range of topics, including the Ellis MSS at Trinity College, Cambridge life in the 1830s-40s, Ellis’s contributions to mathematics, philosophy and classics and his collaborations with D.F. Gregory, Alexander Gooden, William Whewell, Augustus De Morgan and James Spedding.

A small exhibition of unpublished materials related to Robert Leslie Ellis will be mounted in the Wren Library around the time of the meeting. The meeting will be opened by Richard Serjeantson, Fellow and Lecturer in History, Trinity College.


Confirmed speakers include June Barrow-Green (Open University), John R. Gibbins (Cambridge), Arthur Gibson (Cambridge), David Palfrey (Cambridge), Joan Richards (Brown University), Jonathan Smith (Cambridge), Stephen Stigler (University of Chicago), Christopher Stray (Swansea University), Lukas M. Verburgt (Utrecht University)

Venue and time

  • Trinity College, Cambridge
  • Old Combination Room
  • 28 September 2018, 10-16.00 hrs

There are a very small number of seats available. Please register early by sending an email to (Lukas Verburgt) and/or (Jonathan Smith).

A meeting of the NWO VENI Grant A New History and Philosophy for the Exact Sciences (PI: L.M. Verburgt), organized in collaboration with Trinity College, Cambridge, and the Descartes Centre, Utrecht University