Fellows of Senate

Professor Morris Birkbeck Pell

Professor Morris Birkbeck Pell was one of the first 3 professors at the University of Sydney (Professor of Mathematics from 1852 to 1877), and was a Fellow of Senate from 1861 to 1879.


BA Camb
Fellow of Senate: 1861 - 1879

His early years

Morris Birkbeck Pell was born on 31 March 1827 at Albion, Illinois, United States of America, son of Gilbert Titus Pell and his wife Elizabeth, née Birkbeck.

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 (BA 1849). A senior wrangler in mathematics and second Smith's prizeman, he was elected a fellow of St John's on 18 March 1850.


Morris Birkbeck Pell in 1850 in England, photo G3_224_1422, University of Sydney Archives

His career

In 1852 Pell was chosen from twenty-six candidates as first professor of mathematics and natural philosophy in the University of Sydney. 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.

For many years almost crippled by an injury to his spine, Pell resigned in mid-1877 as professor of mathematics. 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. He left an annuity to his estranged wife Julia, then residing in Tasmania, provided that she did not return to Sydney.

Professor and Mrs Pell in the 1850s in Sydney

Photo taken in the 1850s of Professor Pell seated on the steps and Mrs Pell close to door of their Sydney house 'Parkville', with french windows onto verandah and a arge auracaria tree in the garden, photo 809_058, University of Sydney Archives


Professor Pell in 1860, photo G3_224_1398, University of Sydney Archives


Professor Pell in 1870, photo G3_224_1423, University of Sydney Archives

Membership of Senate

Pell was a member of Senate from 1861 to 1877 and after resignation was re-elected to the Senate in 1878 by members of convocation.

From the Australian Dictionary of Biography