(September 3, 1814 – March 15, 1897)

A proponent of women’s tertiary education, Sylvester was an indefatigable genius who triumphed over unending barriers. Despite coming overall second (i.e. Second Wrangler) in Cambridge University’s Mathematical Tripos exam, he was denied his degree just because he was Jewish. He would also be refused a professorial chair at New York’s Columbia University for the same reason. Institutionalized discriminations, which were rampant in those days in Euro-American scientific communities, drove him into settling for the legal profession. Still, his love for maths did not die. He befriended Arthur Cayley (a successful lawyer with unquenchable appetite for algebra). Together with Cayley, Sylvester developed the Invariant Theory. He would also make deep and decisive contributions to Matrix Theory, Partition Theory, Number Theory, Combinatorics, Mechanics, and even Poetry. These, alongside his other scientific works, prompted both the Johns Hopkins University (U.S.A.) and the Oxford University (U.K.) to woo him. He founded the American Journal of Mathematics while at Johns Hopkins, and retained his Oxford chair for life. Apart from being remembered for his theorems, formulae and concepts, James Joseph Sylvester is often likened to Gottfried Leibniz: due to his knack for coining mathematical terms (such as graph, matrix, invariant, covariant and discriminant). He is the eponym of several items, including: the London Royal Society’s Sylvester Medal, the Sylvester lunar crater, the Sylvester’s sequence, and the Sylvester Library: which is a vector, matrix and geometry library for JavaScript. William Pitt Durfee (who introduced Durfee squares to Number Theory) is among his notable students.


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