George Boole’s untimely death

George Boole died in Cork on the 8th December 1864 following a short illness.  On the 24th November 1864 Boole was caught in heavy rain on his way from his house in Ballintemple to lectures at Queens College, a distance of approximately 3 miles.  Instead of changing his clothes, he continued teaching through the day, and subsequently caught pneumonia from which he did not recover.  Boole’s death certificate gives the certified cause of death as pleuro-pneumonia and gives the duration of the illness as 17 to 19 days.  (See The Life and Work of George Boole by Des McHale, p 273-277).

Boole's gravestone at St. Michael's Church, Blackrock, Cork
Boole’s gravestone at St. Michael’s Church, Blackrock, Cork

Boole was buried in the churchyard of St. Michael’s Church of Ireland, Blackrock, Cork on the 12 December 1864.  A few yards from the gravestone there is also a marble tablet placed there by his wife which pays the following tribute:

“To the memory of George Boole, LLD, DCL, FRS, Cork, in whom the highest order of intellect cultivated by unwearied industry produced the fruits of deep humility and childlike trust.  He was born in Lincoln on the 2 Nov. 1815 and died at Ballintemple on 8 Dec. 1864.  For ever O Lord Thy word is settled in Heaven.”

There are not many letters in the UCC Collection from the later years of Boole’s life.  One of the last is a tender letter to his daughter Mary Ellen, written from London on 11 June 1864:

One page letter from George Boole  in London to his daughter Mary Ellen, sending her all his love and asking her to 'Give each of the little ones a kiss for me.'
BP/1/329 Boole’s letter to his daughter Mary Ellen, 11 June 1864.

“I send you my best love and hope that you will be a good girl.  You are now 8 years old.  Give each of the little ones a kiss for me.  I am your father George Boole.”

Following Boole’s death his family received many letters of sympathy from friends and associates of the great man.  One of these came from Joseph Hill who Boole had visited earlier in September 1863.  Hill’s letter recalls the meeting of George Boole and Charles Babbage at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London, a meeting which must surely be one of the most remarkable encounters of the mid-nineteenth century.   Hill recounts:

16 page letter from Joseph Hill to George Boole's sister Maryann continuing his remembrances of Boole. In this letter he concentrates on Boole's love of maths and his health. As
schoolboys they used to amuse themselves with algebra and later Boole enjoyed solving the maths problems posed in the 'Ladies Diary'. In 1861 they went together to the International Exhibition in
London where they viewed Babbage's calculating machine. Boole stated he did not understand the machine so Hill found a gentleman explaining its works to a lady and asked him to explain it to Boole also. While they were
talking Mr. Babbage arrived and entered into a long conversation with Boole: 'the two great men together seemed to have taken steps towards the construction of that great prodigy a thinking machine'. He also remembers
Boole once folding some paper to an angle of 450 and using it to measure distance and height. He also recalls that Boole liked to express mathematical ideas in a visible form. In relation to Boole's health he remembers him once walking from Lincoln to Doncaster, although he would never do so again. He was a sturdy walker of hills, but his sight was poor
and he often had trouble deciphering Greek characters because of it. Hill himself believed diet altered a persons character and recalls that Boole ate a great deal of salt, even on bread and butter.
BP/1/260 Joseph Hill’s letter to Maryann recalling the meeting of Boole and Babbage.

“As Boole had discovered that means of reasoning might be conducted by a mathematical process, and Babbage had invented a machine for the performance of mathematical work,  the two great men together seemed to have taken steps towards the construction of that great prodigy a Thinking Machine‘.

The Life and Work of George Boole by Professor Emeritus Desmond MacHale has just been published as part of the UCC George Boole 200 celebrations and is available from the UCC Visitor Centre and all major booksellers.  UCC marks the 150th anniversary of Boole’s death with a Choral Evensong in St. Michaels’s Church of Ireland, Blackrock on the 8th December 2014.

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