In the hallway of the Ward Library hangs an oil-painting of Professor Peter Guthrie Tait (1831 – 1901), the eyes of which seem to fix each visitor to the library with an intense and quizzical scrutiny. P.G. Tait, illustrious Scottish mathematician and physicist, was apparently an admirable teacher with a strong personality, and some of this personality has recently been revealed to us through some unexpected doodles amongst his papers.
This article does not seek to discuss Tait’s life and career which can be read in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Born in Dalkeith, educated in Edinburgh, Tait was admitted to Peterhouse in 1848. He was Senior Wrangler and first Smith’s prizeman in 1852, and became a Fellow in the same year. He became Professor of Mathematics at Belfast, and then Professor of Natural History at Edinburgh in 1860. He was a life-long friend of James Clerk Maxwell, and a prolific writer of books and articles, and Peterhouse is fortunate enough to have a number of his books and also some of his papers and manuscripts in the Ward Library, donated by Miss Tait in 1985. Dr E.S. Leedham-Green has recently entered the library’s manuscript holdings onto the Janus database of Cambridge archives and her work and discoveries have contributed much to this piece.
J.D. Hamilton Dickson, who knew Tait, describes him as “big, frank, plucky – a splendid good-natured fighter, who could both take a blow, and return it, I doubt not, with interest. It need be no surprise therefore to learn that if there was fun anywhere around he would have his share in it.” (The Sex: a Peterhouse Magazine, number 17, Michaelmas term, 1902, p.6.)
The playwright J.M. Barrie, who studied under Tait in Edinburgh describes him in An Edinburgh eleven: pencil portraits from College life published in New York by Lovell, Coryell and Company.
“Never, I think, can there have been a more superb demonstrator. I have his burly figure before me. The small twinkling eyes had a fascinating gleam in them; he could concentrate them until they held the object looked at; when they flashed round the room he seemed to have drawn a rapier. I have seen a man fall back in alarm under Tait’s eyes, though there were a dozen benches between them. These eyes could be merry as a boy’s, though, as when he turned a tube of water on students who would insist on crowding too near an experiment, for Tait’s was the humor of high spirits. I could conceive him at marbles still, and feeling annoyed at defeat. He could not fancy anything much funnier than a man missing his chair.” [p. 57]
This intense but humorous personality spills over into the marginalia, notes and doodles that have recently been discovered in both his manuscripts and his printed books.
His papers and the margins of his books are full of scribbled annotations. Some of them can be sharp and humorous, as in this reference to a certain “Walker” who was conducting blasting experiments in Central America. His note caustically refers to “The Nicaraguan filibuster who was then at work. But the name speaks for itself.”
And on the next page he gleefully reports that several fellow academics in Cambridge or “swells” “were taken in” by “the specimen page to test Constable’s printing for Vol. I of T & T!” This refers to Thomson & Tait’s Treatise on Natural Philosophy, the printing of which was a matter of much grief.
A transcription of the following note on one of his book review pages, clearly demonstrates that combination of wicked humour and sharpness.
“There are more such reviews there by me but I got no spare copies. B. Stewart and I tried for a time which could write the more stinging notice. The result was a drawn game but it led to some very violent demonstrations by the victims. Thus – “they” (the Editors) “gave up the name of their miserable hack” – i.e. Stewart in re Baron Von Gurnhack.”
Hamilton Dickson confirms “His great characteristic was the might of his friendship. Woe to anyone who ventured to derogate from his friend, or to detract from his friend’s achievements…. To touch one of them brought Tait’s sharpest pen and blackest ink to paper.” (The Sex: a Peterhouse Magazine, number 17, Michaelmas term, 1902, p.8.)
But it is in the bound volumes of his manuscripts that his doodles appear, scratched in black ink amongst the mathematical formulae and notes. Here a skull and a bird hover over a scientific definition.
A strange insect and a pterodactyl fly at the top of page 295 above a note on force.
Other doodles are a fish, another small bird, and then on p.211 are a mass of musical instruments and notes, flowers, hearts, an enigmatic “Couples” and that head again. These appear in a section concerned with mathematical couples. Perhaps Professor Tait’s mind was on matters of romance rather than the application of force described on this page.
And finally a mathematical fomula shows an example of what could be described as gallows humour?