Alfred North Whitehead Biography

Alfred North Whitehead was a famous British Mathematician, who co-authored the historical ‘Principia Mathematica’ with Bertrand Russell. Check out this biography to know about his childhood, family life, achievements and fun facts about his life.

Alfred North Whitehead
Quick Facts

Birthday: February 15, 1861

Nationality: British, American

Famous: Philosophers Mathematicians

Died At Age: 86

Sun Sign: Aquarius

Born Country: England

Born in: Ramsgate, Kent, England

Famous as: Mathematician, Philosopher

political ideology: libertarian


Spouse/Ex-: Evelyn Wade

father: Alfred Whitehead

mother: Maria Sarah Buckmaster

siblings: Henry Whitehead

Died on: December 30, 1947

place of death: Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States

U.S. State: Rhode Island

More Facts

education: Trinity College, Cambridge, Sherborne School, University of Cambridge

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Alfred North Whitehead was a British Mathematician who is known for his tremendous contributions in algebra, logic, philosophy of science, physics, metaphysics, and education. Although Whitehead was a scientist whose areas of expertise were mathematics and physics, yet his outlook towards these subjects were philosophical than purely scientific. Starting his career as a Fellow and then as a lecturer in mathematics at Trinity College Cambridge, he later diversified into philosophy and metaphysics. As a lecturer at Trinity, he coauthored with Bertrand Russell the three volumes of the ‘Principia Mathematica’, today known as one of the most important works in mathematical logic. Thereafter, as he settled in London, teaching at the Imperial College, his attention was gradually turned to philosophy of science, which in its turn led him to metaphysics, a subject that deals with the philosophical investigation into the nature of the universe and existence. Whitehead spent the last years of his career at Harvard, writing his seminal work, ‘Process’ and Reality’ in the late 1920s. Realistic, helpful, courteous, and devoid of malice, he was equally popular with his colleagues and students.

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Alfred North Whitehead
Childhood & Early Years
  • Alfred North Whitehead was born on 15 February 1861, in Ramsgate, a seaside town in eastern Kent, England. His father, also Alfred Whitehead, was an Anglican clergyman, who taught at Chatham House Academy, established by his own father, Thomas Whitehead. He was an upright man with a deep sense of duty.
  • Alfred’s mother, Maria Sarah nee Buckmaster, has been described as unimaginative woman with no sense of humor. That Alfred was not very fond of her is evident from the fact he never mentioned her in any of his writings.
  • Alfred was born youngest of his parents’ four children, having two brothers seven and eight years his senior and a sister, older by two years. He was the baby of the family and was not sent to school until he was fourteen, studying at home with his father.
  • Along with other subjects, he started learning Latin from the age of 10 and Greek from the age of 12. In 1875, 14 year old Alfred began his formal education at Sherborne School, an independent boys' school then linked with Sherborne Abbey, in the town of Sherborne in north-west Dorset.
  • At school, the major subjects were Latin, Greek and English; less attention being paid to mathematics, science, history and geography. It was here that he grew to love the poetries of Wordsworth and Shelly. He also excelled in games, but showed greatest aptitude for mathematics.
  • In 1879, his final year at school, Alfred was allowed to drop composition and reading of Latin poetry to devote more time to mathematics. This was also the year he became the head prefect of his class and the captain of games.
  • In 1879, he sat for the entrance examination for Trinity College, Cambridge and won a scholarship. Subsequently, in October 1880, Alfred North Whitehead entered Trinity College. Later, he also won a College Foundation scholarship.
  • At Cambridge, he studied both pure and applied mathematics. His coach was Edward John Routh. Among his teachers were J. W. L. Glaisher, H. M. Taylor and W. D. Niven. He also attended lecture by George Stokes and Arthur Cayley, concurrently developing considerable knowledge in history, literature, and philosophy.
  • He took the Mathematical Tripos examinations in 1883, graduating in 1884 as the Fourth Wrangler. In the same year, he presented a dissertation on Maxwell's theory of electricity and magnetism, which earned him a Fellowship at the Trinity. Also in May 1884, he was elected to the Cambridge Apostle.
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Lecturer At Cambridge
  • In 1884, Alfred North Whitehead began his career as a Fellow at the Trinity College, Cambridge, where he taught applied mathematics. It is not known if he undertook mathematical research during this early period because he did not publish a single paper in the first five years.
  • In 1888, he was made a Lecturer at the University of Cambridge. In the following year, he published two papers, both of which were on the motion of viscous fluids. But later, his interest turned to pure mathematics.
  • In January 1891, he started working on his first major work, ‘Treatise on Universal Algebra’. The work would take seven years to complete, finally being published in 1898. Meanwhile in 1894, he was appointed as examiner at Mathematical Tripos.
  • In 1903, Whitehead was promoted to the post of Senior Lecturer at Trinity. In the same year, he abandoned his work on the second volume of ‘Treatise on Universal Algebra’, which he had started in 1898, to start collaboration with Bertrand Russell, a former student and colleague.
  • In 1900, Whitehead and Russell went to Paris to attend International Congress of Philosophy, where they met Giuseppe Peano and Alessandro Padoa, the proponents of the set theory. Working independently, Russell published ‘Principles of Mathematics’, in 1903, and then started working on its second volume.
  • Very soon, it became apparent that Whitehead and Russell were working on the same topic and therefore, they decided to work together. Initially, they had thought they would complete the project within one year; but it took them seven years to complete the first volume.
  • Entitled, ‘Principia Mathematica’, the first volume was published in 1910. In the same year, Whitehead resigned from his position at Cambridge and moved to London without securing his next position. Meanwhile in 1907, Whitehead had his second book ‘The Axioms of Descriptive Geometry’ published.
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In London
  • In 1911, after remaining unemployed for one year, Alfred North Whitehead accepted a position as Lecturer in Applied Mathematics and Mechanics at University College London. In the same year, he had his fourth book, ‘An Introduction to Mathematics’ published.
  • At the same time, he continued his collaboration with Russell, publishing the second and third volume of ‘Principia Mathematica’ in 1912 and 1913 respectively. Also in 1912, he hoped to be appointed to the Goldsmid Chair of Applied Mathematics and Mechanics, but was bypassed.
  • Therefore when in 1914, he received an invitation from his old friend Andrew Forsyth, Chief Professor of Mathematics at the Imperial College London, he joined the institution as Professor of Applied Mathematics. Very soon, he embarked on a very productive period.
  • From 1917 to 1922, he had four major works published, namely, 'The Organization of Thought Educational and Scientific' (1917), 'An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge' (1919), 'The Concept of Nature' (1920), and 'The Principle of Relativity with Applications to Physical Science’ (1922).
  • Also from late 1918, Whitehead’s administrative responsibilities began to expand. In that year, he was elected the Dean of the Faculty of Science for four year. Concurrently, in 1919, he became a Member of the University of London's Senate and in 1920, the Chairman of the Senate's Academic Council.
  • Towards the end of his stay in London, while explaining the relation between formal mathematical theories in physics and their basis in experience, Whitehead’s attention was turned to the philosophy of science. Although he never had any formal training in philosophy, his works in this field were highly appreciated.
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At Harvard
  • In early 1924, 63 year old Alfred North Whitehead received an invitation to join the faculty of philosophy at Harvard University for a five-year term. Since he had only two years of service left at the Imperial College, he gladly accepted the offer.
  • He was equally intrigued by the prospect of teaching philosophy at Harvard. But once there, it was found that he was equally adept in metaphysics. His works in this field is compared to that of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and G.W.F. Hegel.
  • In 1925, he gave a course of eight lectures on philosophy, which were published in the same year as ‘Science and the Modern World’. It was followed by ‘Religion in the Making’ (1926) and ‘Symbolism, Its Meaning and Effect’ (1927).
  • In January 1927, he was invited by the University of Edinburg to give a set of 10 Gifford Lectures in the next academic year. Although the lectures were thinly attended they led to the publication of ‘Process’ and Reality’, which is considered his master work.
  • Whitehead continued to teach at Harvard until the age of 76, retiring in June 1937. During this period, he had four book published; ‘The Aims of Education and Other Essays’ (1929), ‘The Function of Reason’ (1929), ‘Adventures of Ideas' (1933) and 'Nature and Life" (1934).
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Major Works
  • Whitehead is best remembered for his 1929 book, ‘Process and Reality’, in which he had presented his system of speculative philosophy or ‘cosmology’. Full of technical terms that he was compelled to invent, it is definitely the densest as well as the most difficult work in whole of Western canon.
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  • While ‘Process and Reality’ is for experts, general readers will find his ‘Adventure of Ideas’ more rewarding. Published in 1933, it is his last big philosophical work. In it he summarized his ideas on metaphysics, explaining his notion about beauty, truth, art, adventure, and peace.
Awards & Achievements
  • In 1922, Whitehead was awarded the first ever James Scott Prize by the Royal Society of Edinburgh.
  • In 1925, he was awarded the Sylvester Medal by the Royal Society, London for his work on the foundations of mathematics. He had been a member of the Society Since 1903.
  • In 1930, he received Butler Medal from the Columbia University.
  • In 1931, Whitehead was elected to the British Academy.
  • In 1945, he was awarded the Order of Merit by the British monarch.
  • From 1922 to 1923, he served as president of the Aristotelian Society, London.
  • He also received honorary degrees from many universities including Manchester, St Andrews, Wisconsin, Harvard, Yale and Montreal.
Personal Life & Legacy
  • In 1890, Whitehead married Evelyn Willoughby Wade an Irish lady, brought up in France. She had a positive influence on her husband’s life and it was her sense of adventure and beauty, which helped him to form his philosophical thoughts.
  • The couple had three children; a daughter named Jessie Whitehead, and two sons named Thomas North Whitehead and Eric Whitehead. Eric joined the Royal Flying Corps during World War I and died in action in 1918 at the age of 19.
  • Whitehead spent the last years of his life in Cambridge, Massachusetts, continuing to publish papers. Although he loved his life in the USA, he remained a British citizen till the end.
  • He died on 30 December 1947. An agnostic by religion, his body was cremated in accordance of his wish and no funeral was arranged. According to his prior instructions, Evelyn Whitehead destroyed all his unpublished papers after his death.
  • Whitehead Research Project, established in 2005, continues to carry his legacy. It sponsors researches on the life and philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, exploring the relevance of his thoughts in today’s world.

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Last Updated
- May 18, 2017

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