Sir George Gabriel Stokes, Bart. (1819–1903)
Sir George Gabriel Stokes was one of the leading scientists of his day. His contributions to physics, mathematics, chemistry and engineering remain of great importance – indeed of increasing importance – today. He occupied the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics in the University of Cambridge, and was for five years President of The Royal Society. He was member of parliament for the University, also for five years, and at the end of his life briefly Master of Pembroke College. What’s more, he became a Baronet in 1889.
George Gabriel Stokes was born in Skreen, County Sligo, Ireland on 13 August 1819, the son of a Protestant minister. He entered Pembroke College, Cambridge, in 1837 to read mathematics, and graduated ‘senior wrangler’ (i.e. the highest-scoring mathematician of his year) in 1841. He was immediately awarded a fellowship of the college (and is so recorded in the 1841 census), beginning his research, publishing papers, and becoming recognized as a leading mathematician. In 1849 he was appointed to the Lucasian Professorship of Mathematics in the University (previously held by Isaac Newton, and more recently by Stephen Hawking – see the gold medal he was awarded after holding the chair for 50 years), and was elected to the Royal Society. (The 1851 census report records him as a fellow of Pembroke College and as ‘Professor of Mathematics’.)
In 1857 he married Mary Susannah Robinson (c.1825–1899), the daughter of the Dublin-born Rev. Thomas Romney Robinson (1792-1882), astronomer, physicist, director of the Armagh Astronomical Observatory in Northern Ireland. At that time, fellows of Cambridge colleges were required not to be married, so Stokes resigned his fellowship, taking it up again in 1862 when that rule was changed. In 1885, he was elected President of The Royal Society (a learned society for science founded in 1660) – a mark of the highest distinction – for the statutory five-year period. In 1902, he was elected Master of Pembroke College and served until his death the following year.
Stokes had been brought up in a religious household. Quite how religious is indicated by the fact that all three of his brothers became priests. See the memorial plaque and memorial window to George in St Paul’s Church, Cambridge, where he was Churchwarden for 34 years. George was also President of the Victoria Institute (a philosophical society founded to defend biblical truths from the attacks of science) from 1886 to 1903.
Stokes as scientist
Stokes was a titan of 19th century science, who made significant contributions to physics, mathematics, chemistry and engineering. He is responsible for the modern formulation of the foundational equations of viscous fluid mechanics (the Navier-Stokes equations), which today are used to account for phenomena as diverse as flow of blood and the dynamics of the atmosphere. Highly viscous flows, such as those encountered by swimming cells, are called ‘Stokes flows’. The unit used to measure viscosity is named after him.
In optics, he elucidated and named ‘fluorescence’, the effect whereby certain minerals emit visible light when exposed to ultraviolet light. Today, this effect is the basis of fluorescent lighting. In mathematics, ‘Stokes Theorem’ in vector calculus is a standard tool, known to every student. His unpublished work was often re-discovered and credited to others; he anticipated most of Kirchoff’s later discovery of spectroscopy, a powerful optical technique that reveals the composition of stars and a crucial method of chemical analysis. In addition, he was called upon to investigate the infamous failures of several large railway bridges and influenced the engineering design of iron structures.
The family home was ‘Lensfield’ – a house on Lensfield Road, the site of which is now occupied by the Scott Polar Institute. Stokes and his wife had five children: Arthur Romney (1858-1916), Susanna Elizabeth (1859-63), Isabella Lucy (1861-1934),William George Gabriel (1863-93), and Dora Susanna (c.1868–1868). Of these, Susanna and William are buried in the St Paul’s area of Mill Road Cemetery, as is his wife.
Isabella married Lawrence Humphry (1856–1920), Physician to Addenbrooke’s Hospital, in 1889, and she and her husband are also buried in the cemetery.
Death and Funeral
At his death on 1 February 1903, Stokes, aged 81, was still living at ‘Lensfield House’, but now with his daughter Isabella, her husband Lawrence Humphry, and their uncle William C Robinson, aged 74. He was buried in Mill Road Cemetery on the 5th of that month. There is no visible grave to him in the cemetery, and yet he was buried here, and we know exactly where: it is recorded in the Sexton’s grave book for St Paul’s Church:
1903 Feb 5 STOKES George Gabriel of Lensfield [Age] 83 [Row] XIV/[Grave] 42
The grave is stated there to be a brick vault, built in 1900 when his wife Mary Susanna was buried. The photograph below shows the graves of his wife (left, cracked) and two of his children (right): his body is reported to have been interred between them.
A memoir of him written by his daughter Isabel Lucy, in whose household Sir George spent his final years, reports:
On the night of February the 4th, his body lay in the Chapel of Pembroke [College], where he had so often worshipped; and on the following morning, after a short service, it was borne according to ancient custom round the court of the Chapel, and thence to the University Church.
The University, which had honoured him while living, honoured him dead, and a great company was collected in the church to do him reverence. But I do not remember anything more, except that some of those who most loved him and the members of his College still continued with him and followed him, until after the final prayers his body was laid beside that of his beloved wife, and near two of his children in the Mill Road Cemetery.
For the account of Stokes’s funeral in the local newspaper, see Stokes-funeral_report.
Parish : St Paul
Memoirs and Scientific Correspondence of the late Sir George Gabriel Stokes, Bart., ed. Joseph Larmor (Cambridge University Press, rev 2010), p. 49 (Isabella Lucy Humphry [née Stokes])
Census reports 1841, 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891 and 1901
St Paul’s Church burial register
Private communications from Dr Simon Brook, Archivist of St Paul’s Church, Cambridge
By Stephen Morris, Emma Easterbrook, Mary Naylor and Ian Bent