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Edward John Nanson (1850–1936)

by G. C. Fendley

This article was published:

Edward John Nanson (1850-1936), by unknown photographer, 1914-18

Edward John Nanson (1850-1936), by unknown photographer, 1914-18

University of Melbourne Archives, UMA/I/1113

Edward John Nanson (1850-1936), university professor and electoral reformer, was born on 13 December 1850 at Penrith, Cumberland, England, son of John Nanson, hatter, and his wife Isabella, née Bowman. From Penrith Grammar School he went to Ripon Grammar School where he was a favourite pupil of the headmaster, Canon J. F. McMichael, whose eldest daughter Elizabeth he married at Ripon Cathedral on 21 April 1875. In 1870 he had entered Trinity College, Cambridge (B.A., 1873); as second wrangler and second Smith's prizeman, he became a fellow of Trinity College in 1874 and was appointed that year professor of applied mathematics at the Royal Indian Engineering College, Cooper's Hill, Surrey. After W. P. Wilson died, Nanson was appointed professor of mathematics, pure and mixed, in the University of Melbourne, arriving in June 1875.

Nanson did not profess a popular discipline. He was frustrated by low first-year standards and the perfunctory attitude of arts and engineering students undertaking a compulsory study. Unlike his predecessor he did not develop natural philosophy interests or associate himself directly with the pragmatic concerns of the growing engineering school. Kind but reserved in manner, mild in temperament, a field naturalist given to solitary rambles, Nanson received unsympathetic treatment from the reforming royal commission on the University of Melbourne (1902-04) which criticized student absenteeism and lack of tutorial teaching, but affirmed his industry and stature as a mathematician. A disciple of Cayley, Sylvester and Salmon, Nanson was of the dominant English 'aesthetic' school of pure mathematics whose great achievements were in formal algebra and its applications in geometry. He kept abreast of the most advanced theoretical studies in this field, notably matrix theory, and contributed regularly to the Messenger of Mathematics (Cambridge) and to the Proceedings of the Royal societies of London, Edinburgh and Victoria. Intellectually lonely in his theoretical interests he found some companionship in the Mathematics Association of Victoria of which he became first president in 1906.

Widely known as an electoral reformer, of the school of Thomas Hare and J. S. Mill, Nanson advocated proportional representation, using the preferential vote and the principle of the quota in multi-member electorates as 'the only way the true will of the people can be ascertained'. From the early 1880s at public meetings, in the daily press and in numerous journal articles and pamphlets, such as Electoral Reform (1899) and The Real Value of a Vote (1900), he analysed contemporary elections and assessed electoral reform proposals. His ideas were embodied in an electoral reform bill introduced in the Legislative Assembly of Victoria in August 1900 by Sir George Turner and Alfred Deakin and in the first Commonwealth electoral bill drafted by (Sir) Robert Garran in 1901. The bills were amended and did not implement his theories but Nanson continued his critique of Australian elections in How to Secure Majority Rule (1904). The Council of the University of Melbourne was elected on a scheme proposed by him.

Nanson had a life-appointment but negotiated a pension settlement with the university and retired as emeritus professor in December 1922. His wife had died in 1904 and he married Mavourneen Bertha, née Wettenhall, in Melbourne on 10 March 1913. He was a trustee of the Public Library, museums and National Gallery of Victoria in 1879-1913 and was an active Anglican layman. He died on 1 July 1936 at Glen Iris and was buried in St Kilda cemetery. His wife, a son and five daughters of his first marriage, and four daughters of his second, survived him. A portrait by Bernard Hall is held by the University of Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • Alma Mater (University of Melbourne), May 1896, Jan 1902
  • Age (Melbourne), 2 July 1936
  • 'Obituary', Times (London), 28 July 1936, p 16
  • University of Melbourne Archives.

Citation details

G. C. Fendley, 'Nanson, Edward John (1850–1936)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 21 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Edward John Nanson (1850-1936), by unknown photographer, 1914-18

Edward John Nanson (1850-1936), by unknown photographer, 1914-18

University of Melbourne Archives, UMA/I/1113

Life Summary [details]


13 December, 1850
Penrith, Cumberland, England


1 July, 1936 (aged 85)
Glen Iris, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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