Oxford’s Sedleian Chair of Natural Philosophy is one of the University’s oldest professorships.  It was founded in 1619 thanks to a bequest from the barrister and Kentish landowner Sir William Sedley, who left funds for the establishment of a teaching post in natural philosophy: the study of nature and the physical universe.

The Chair’s earliest occupants were all physicians, and in most cases little direct evidence of their teaching survives.  Indeed, some of these early professors may have found private medical practice more lucrative than delivering their statutory Oxford lectures.  A notable exception is Thomas Willis (professor 1660–75), a pioneer in the study of the brain and nervous system, whose lecture notes on that subject survive in the Bodleian Library.

The first part of the eighteenth century saw several Sedleian Professors whose credentials in natural philosophy were questionable, and the post was treated for some time as a sinecure.  It was only with the appointment of the astronomer Thomas Hornsby in 1782 that the Chair was steered back in a more securely scientific direction.  By the time of his death in 1810, the rearrangement of teaching duties within the University meant that the Sedleian Professorship fell naturally into the hands of (applied) mathematicians, where it has remained ever since: first mathematics educators, but later on figures who combined eminence in both research and teaching.  The Chair has been associated with Queen’s since the 1850s.

The new book Oxford’s Sedleian Professors of Natural Philosophy: The First 400 Years, co-edited by Dr Christopher Hollings (Clifford Norton Senior Research Fellow in the History of Mathematics, Queen’s) and Dr Mark McCartney (Senior Lecturer in Mathematics, University of Ulster) tells the story of the foundation of this professorship, and of the many twists and turns in its development, via the individual tales of the varied academics who have occupied the post over the past four centuries.

The Chair has a fascinating history, which this book, co-edited by Dr Hollings, brings to life.  The cast of previous Sedleian Professors includes many remarkable figures, whose stories are splendidly told, illustrating much broader themes in the history of the University.

Prof Jon Keating, current Sedleian Professor

Christopher D. Hollings and Mark McCartney (eds.), Oxford’s Sedleian Professors of Natural Philosophy: The First 400 Years, Oxford University Press, 2023