Gregory | David | 1659-1708 | professor of mathematics, University of Edinburgh, and Savilian Professor of Astronomy, University of Oxford

Biographical Information

Occupation, Sphere of Activity

David Gregory, nephew of the famous St Andrews mathematician James Gregorie (1638-1675), was born in Upper Kirkgate, Aberdeen, on 03 June, 1659. He was educated for a while at nearby Marischal College, was endowed financially by the murder of his older brother, and was set loose to pursue his private interests in maths, physics, and astronomy. Without graduating from Marischal, he unhorsed the mathematics chairman at Edinburgh University in a broadsheet debate in 1683 and took his job. He was given a hasty MA from Edinburgh for decorum's sake, and he taught mathematics for seven years, and also optics, mechanics, hydrostatics, and even anatomy. Town-gown quarrels arose in 1689, turned gradually libellous, and eventually attracted the Hanoverian committee of visitation then scouring Scottish universities for Cartesians and other treasoners. Not holding any truly radical views on anything, Gregory nevertheless saw fit by 1691 to take a fresh appointment comfortably far away, in Oxford. This was the Savilian chair of astronomy, in which he spent the rest of his professional life. With his new post he was given another MA and a desultory MD, along with a non-fellow 'MA commoner' appointment in Balliol College and membership in the Royal Society. He took a quick trip to Flanders in 1693, then settled into productive teaching and publishing until1707, the year in which the Act of Union between Scotland and England drew him to work on government fiscal matters instead of science. He was chiefly responsible for rationalizing the Scottish Mint, even as his mentor Sir Isaac Newton was doing for the London Mint. His health failed him during his official travelling, and he died in a Maidenhead inn on 10 October, 1708.

In his lectures and his principal textbook, Professor Gregory was the first to cast astronomy completely in the alloy of Newtonian gravitational principles. He also gave undergraduates an enduringly useful guide to optics, whose special contribution was to propose an achromatic telescope. More generally he extended his uncle's work on quadrature by infinite series, and shed light on vexing issues in mathematics and theoretical astronomy, including the catenary curve, eclipses, the 'parallax problem', and the Cassinian orbital model for comets.


Three important professional relationships at home were with Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), Edmond Halley (1656 - 1742), and John Flamsteed (1646-1719). On the continent, Gregory maintained close correspondence with Jan Hudde (1628 - 1704) and Christiaan Huygens (1629 - 1695).

Other Significant Information

Notable publications:

Exercitatio geometrica de dimensione figurarum, ( 1684)

Catoptricae et dioptricae sphaericae elementa, (1695)

Astronomiae physicae et geometricae elementa, (1702)

Honours, Qualifications and Appointments

1683: Appointed Professor of Mathematics, University of Edinburgh

1691: Appointed Savilian Professor of Astronomy, University of Oxford

1692: Elected Member, Royal Society


List of sources for the biographical information:

Eagles, Christina M, The Mathematical Work of David Gregory, 1659-1708, (Edinburgh University Ph.D. thesis, 1977)

Hiscock, WG, David Gregory, Isaac Newton and their Circle. Extracts from David Gregory's Memoranda 1677-1708, ( Oxford University Press, 1937)