Book review: The Booles and the Hintons

GEORGE BOOLE FRS (1815—1864) was the first Professor of Mathematics at Queen’s College (now University College) Cork, and has variously been described as the creator of Symbolic Logic, the Founder of Pure Mathematics, and the father of the Computer and Electronic age. 

James Hinton (1822—1875) was a renowned ear-surgeon and social philosopher whose unorthodox theories and behaviour scandalised mid-19th century England. 

In 1880, Mary Ellen Boole (1856—1908) the eldest daughter of George and Mary Everest Boole, married Charles Howard Hinton (1853—1907) the son of James and Margaret Hinton, and so the Boole-Hinton dynasty was begun.

Gerry Kennedy, himself descended from George Boole’s younger brother William, has written a most interesting and informative book — The Booles and the Hintons, Two Dynasties that Helped Shape the Modern World.

In a short review, it is difficult to give anything like a full description of the scope and extent of this impressive work, which covers the life and work of the Booles, their five famous daughters and their descendants, as well as the life and ideas of James Hinton and his colourful son Charles, mathematical pioneer of the Fourth Dimension, and their descendants.

Book review: The Booles and the Hintons

Geographically, the range of the book is quite breathtaking.

It covers Ireland where the Booles lived and their five young daughters grew up; England, where the Booles, the Everests and the Hintons sprang from and to where Mary Everest Boole returned in 1865 after her husband died; Japan, to where Charles and Mary Ellen fled after the scandal of his bigamy; Russia and Poland where the youngest Boole daughter Ethel Lilian, author of the best-selling novel The Gadfly, had her revolutionary adventures; Communist China, to which Joan Hinton, descended from both the Booles and the Hintons ‘defected’ in 1948, having worked on the production of the first atomic bomb at Los Alamos; and the United States where many of the Hinton descendants and Ethel (now Voynich) put down their roots.

The book has new information too on Margaret Boole (1858—1935) the second Boole daughter. She studied nursing in Cork and became a clinical assistant at the Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital in the period 1875-1878.

She developed fundamental new techniques of picturing the retina of the eye and the inner ear for signs of disease. She gained a prize at the Cork School of Art in 1879 before she returned to London in 1880. 

In 1885 she married Edward Taylor, a ships’ artist, and they produced two famous sons — Sir Geoffrey Taylor FRS, one of the world’s most famous applied mathematicians of the 20th century, and Julian Taylor, the eminent surgeon.

But possibly one of the most valuable contributions of Gerry Kennedy’s book is his account of the career of Ethel (Boole) Voynich and her revolutionary adventures in Poland and Russia. Kennedy personally retraces her steps and explains the reverence in the communist world for her novel The Gadfly, set to music by Shostakovich. 

There is a lively account too of the Voynich Manuscript (on which Kennedy is an authority).

This was uncovered by Ethel’s husband, Wilfrid Voynich, a Polish bookseller, and remains the world’s most elusive coded document, which no cryptologist has yet managed to decipher.

Anybody believing that talent and genius are hereditary, will find lots of evidence in this book. 

The Booles and the Hintons and their descendants include many famous scientists and Fellows of the Royal Society, eminent surgical and medical researchers, educationalists, inventors, physicists and mathematicians, writers and philosophers, and musicians too.

There are several figures in The Booles and the Hintons whose careers, for reasons of space, are merely sketched. 

These people really deserve comprehensive biographies of their own — 21st century biographies, carefully researched and objectively written.

The first is James Hinton himself, who has been both worshipped and demonised. But any man who said ‘As Jesus Christ was the saviour of men, I am the saviour of women’ deserves a proper biography!

Sadly too there is no full-length biography of Mary Everest Boole, who incidentally was the niece of the man after whom the world’s highest mountain is named. 

She was an educational psychologist, whose theories were way before their time. She led an extraordinary life, dying in 1916 after more than 50 years of widowhood.

Finally, there is Ethel Voynich (1864-1960), best-selling author, composer, and revolutionary. If ever a Cork woman deserved a comprehensive and balanced biography, it is she.

Gerry Kennedy’s 476 page The Booles and the Hintons, beautifully produced and illustrated by Cork University Press, is thoroughly recommended, and compulsory reading for all interested in the many members of this remarkable dynasty, the history of science and philosophy, and indeed the part played in these matters by our own City of Cork.

Professor Des MacHale of UCC is author of The Life and Work of George Boole.

The Booles and the Hintons

Gerry Kennedy

Cork University Press, €29.95


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