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Sir Horace Lamb (1849–1934)

by R. B. Potts

This article was published:

Sir Horace Lamb (1849-1934), mathematician, was born on 27 November 1849 at Stockport, Cheshire, England, son of John Lamb and his wife Elizabeth, née Rangeley. After his father died his mother remarried and Horace was brought up by her sister. He was educated at Stockport Grammar School where Rev. Charles Hamilton was headmaster and Frederick Slaney Poole a junior classics master. In 1867 Lamb won a classical scholarship at Queens' College, Cambridge, but was considered too young and went for a year to Owens College, Manchester, where he was influenced to study mathematics at Cambridge. In 1868 he was elected to a minor scholarship at Trinity College (B.A., 1872; M.A., 1875); in his first degree he was second wrangler in the Mathematical Tripos and was elected a fellow and lecturer of his college.

On 6 November 1874 the Act founding the University of Adelaide received the governor's assent and Thomas Elder donated £20,000 to the new university. The council decided to use this gift to found two professorships, one of them in mathematics. Meanwhile, Poole had migrated to South Australia and, knowing that Lamb was about to marry Elizabeth Foot, of Dublin, sister-in-law of Charles Hamilton, and would therefore have to resign his fellowship at Trinity, he wrote in 1875 to Lamb suggesting that he apply for the chair in Adelaide. Lamb was duly appointed and arrived with his wife in South Australia in March 1876 in time for the university's inauguration in April.

As one of the first four professors Lamb was prominent in establishing the academic and administrative structure of the university. He lectured in pure and applied mathematics as well as giving instruction in practical physics. The early experiment with evening lectures for students was not a success and the council arranged instead for the professors to give evening lectures to the general public on subjects which were to 'be handled in a manner at once scientific and popular'. Lamb's public lectures indicated his breadth and versatility, and included 'Sound and the Physical Basis of Music' and 'Optics with special reference to the Theory of Vision' in 1877, 'The Earth and our Knowledge of It' in 1878, 'Demonstrations in Physics' in 1879, 'The Scientific Principles involved in Electric Lighting and in the Electric Transmission of Power' in 1882 and 'Acoustics' in 1884. His Treatise on the Motion of Fluids had been published at Cambridge in 1879; retitled Hydrodynamics in 1895, it ran to many editions and was one of the masterly classics of applied mathematics. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1884.

In 1885 the University of Adelaide granted Lamb leave to enable him to visit England. He was farewelled from Adelaide by his colleagues and students who presented him with an address engrossed upon vellum: 'We who have enjoyed the rare privilege of sitting at the feet of so able an instructor as yourself gladly avail ourselves of the occasion … to express in some slight form our high appreciation of your ripe scholarship and the universal esteem in which you are held. The zeal displayed in the discharge of your arduous duties, and the interesting and happy manner in which you have delivered your able lectures will not soon be forgotten by those who have attended them. Your ready and generous assistance in times of difficulty, and the kind interest you have always shown in our welfare, have become bywords to us who in the pursuance of our studies have come under your care'. Lamb did not return to Adelaide but accepted appointment as professor of mathematics at Owens College and held that post until he retired in 1920. His last years were spent at Cambridge as an honorary fellow of Trinity College and as Rayleigh lecturer. After a brief illness he died at Cambridge on 4 December 1934.

The first six of Lamb's seven children were born in Adelaide. The eldest, Helen, became tutor in charge of Peele Hall, Newnham College, Cambridge; Ernest, the eldest son, became professor of engineering, Queen Mary College, University of London; the second son, Walter, was secretary of the Royal Academy of Arts, London, and was knighted; Henry became a fellow of the Royal Academy and was a well-known portrait painter and war artist.

Lamb won many honorary degrees and other academic distinctions. He served twice as vice-president of the Royal Society, received a royal medal in 1902 and in 1923 the Copley medal in recognition of his prominence and successful work in applied mathematics and was knighted in 1931. Later editions of Hydrodynamics incorporate the results of some of his many research papers, and among his other books, Infinitesimal Calculus (1897), Dynamical Theory of Sound (1910), Statics (1912), Dynamics (1913) and Higher Mechanics (1920), were adopted as texts in many English and Australian universities and greatly influenced progress in the teaching and research in applied mathematics. Lord Rutherford, when presenting Lamb's portrait to the University of Manchester in 1913, described Lamb as reaching 'more nearly my ideal of a university professor than anyone I have known'.

Select Bibliography

  • University of Adelaide, Calendar, 1877
  • Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society, Dec 1935
  • Register (Adelaide), 30 July 1885
  • Times (London), 5 Dec 1934.

Citation details

R. B. Potts, 'Lamb, Sir Horace (1849–1934)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 21 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


27 November, 1849
Stockport, Cheshire, England


4 December, 1934 (aged 85)
Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, England

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