William Chauvenet

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William Chauvenet

William Chauvenet (24 May 1820 in Milford, Pennsylvania – 13 December 1870 in St. Paul, Minnesota) was a professor of mathematics, astronomy, navigation, and surveying who was instrumental in the establishment of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, and later the second chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis.

Early life[edit]

William Chauvenet was born on a farm near Milford, Pennsylvania to William Marc Chauvenet and Mary B. Kerr[1] and was raised in Philadelphia. Early in life he exhibited a knack for mathematics and all things mechanical. He entered Yale University at age 16, and graduated in 1840 with high honors.

Academic career[edit]

He began his scholarly career by assisting a professor at Girard College in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with a series of magnetic observations.

United States Navy[edit]

In 1841, he was appointed a professor of mathematics in the United States Navy, and for a while served on Mississippi. A year later, he was appointed to the chair of mathematics at the naval asylum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

He was instrumental in the 1845 founding of the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, and taught there for years. In 1855, he declined Yale's offer of a professorship of mathematics.

Washington University[edit]

In 1859, Yale again came calling, offering this time the professorship of astronomy and natural philosophy. Instead, Chauvenet took a job offered by Washington University in St. Louis: professor of mathematics and astronomy. He brought with him a deep love of music and a familiarity with the classics, in addition to being an outstanding figure in the world of science, noted by many historians as one of the foremost mathematical minds in the U.S. before the Civil War. It was Chauvenet who mathematically confirmed James B. Eads' plans for the first bridge to span the Mississippi River at St. Louis. The directors of the University chose him to be chancellor after his friend and Yale classmate Joseph Hoyt died in 1862. He came to his chancellorship in the midst of the Civil War in a state divided by the question of slavery.

Washington University grew during his chancellorship, adding dozens of professors, hundreds of students, and several new programs, including the law school in 1867. He served as vice president of the United States National Academy of Sciences and president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and was a member of both the American Philosophical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Chauvenet died in 1870 in St. Paul, Minnesota, and was buried at Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis.

Post-humous honors[edit]

After his death, the Mathematical Association of America established a prestigious prize in his honor, the Chauvenet Prize; the Naval Academy named a mathematics building for him; and the U.S. Navy christened two ships after him, USS Chauvenet (AGS-11) and Chauvenet (AGS 29). The Chauvenet crater on the moon is named after him as well.


  1. ^ Hockey, Thomas (2009). The Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers. Springer Publishing. ISBN 978-0-387-31022-0. Retrieved August 22, 2012. 

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