Minto, Walter

Minto, Walter (1753-1796), one of Princeton's earliest teachers of mathematics, was perhaps the first deserving the designation ``mathematician.'' Born in Scotland, in a family of Spanish origin, he read in theology at Edinburgh, and after studying mathematics and astronomy in Pisa, became a professor of mathematics at the University of Edinburgh. In 1783 he published a treatise on the recently discovered planet Uranus, which contained mathematical formulas for determining astronomical magnitudes; and in 1787 he collaborated on a biography of John Napier, the Scottish inventor of logarithms.

A warm supporter of the cause of American independence, Minto came to America in 1786. He spent a year as principal of Erasmus Hall, a newly founded boy's school at Flatbush, Long Island, and in 1787 accepted a call to Princeton as professor of mathematics and natural philosophy at a salary of 200 a year plus room and board.

Minto was successful as a teacher and well regarded by the College authorities. When he died at the age of forty-two, he had been treasurer of the College and Clerk of the Board of Trustees for a year, and had almost completed the manuscript for a book on mathematics.

Minto's inaugural oration, delivered on Commencement eve in 1788, and printed by Isaac Collins of Trenton, contains an account of the progress of mathematical science up to that time and a persuasive statement of its importance as an intellectual discipline (``there is no occupation so well adapted . . . to brighten and enlarge that reasoning power which forms the most distinguishing feature of man . . .''). The oration also reveals, in its concluding prayer, Minto's love of liberty as well as of reason, and his faith in their place in his adopted land:

``Father of truth and reason and of every thing that lives! Be pleased to prosper the interests of science and literature in the United States of America: to make those interests ever subservient to the promotion of liberty, happiness, and virtue . . . to protect this country as a secure and happy asylum to the oppressed in all quarters of the globe . . . to cause truth and reason at length to obtain a glorious and everlasting victory over error and violence.''

From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).

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