D. T. Whiteside: Historian of mathematics whose prodigious work on Newton's papers astonished the scholarly world (Obit.)

Historians in the News

In the small world of the history of science and mathematics, D.T. Whiteside, Emeritus Professor of the History of Mathematics and the Exact Sciences at Cambridge University, was a towering figure. He was one of the most profound and exacting scholars produced by Britain in the second half of the 20th century. Tom Whiteside's central work – and what would have been for anyone else a lifetime's labour – was the publication of an edition of the mathematical papers of Isaac Newton.

Newton (1643-1727) left behind mountains of manuscript papers, which were subsequently dispersed into a number of public and private collections. These have been periodically studied by scholars ever since the middle of the 18th century, but much that was written about Newton was little better than hagiography (either because Newton was a great British hero, or the founding hero of modern physical sciences). Over the past 50 years, the intense and careful study of these papers has finally revealed the deeper, more complex, and intellectually, theologically and scientifically richer – and more eccentric – character of Newton. The single most prodigious work in these studies is the eight huge volumes of Whiteside's Mathematical Papers of Isaac Newton, published between 1967 and 1982.

Such was the chaos of the papers and the difficulty in studying them that few had even begun to scratch the surface of their content, let alone the story of the development of Newton's thinking, when Whiteside embarked on his work. His doctoral dissertation at Cambridge (published in 1961 as Patterns of Mathematical Thought in the Later Seventeenth Century, and still unique in its breadth and depth) was the perfect preparation, and after a difficult search for financial support, he began his study of Newton's papers.

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