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John Lighton Synge. 23 March 1897 −− 30 March
1995
Petros S. Florides
Biogr. Mems Fell. R. Soc. 2008 54, 401-424
doi: 10.1098/rsbm.2007.0040
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JOHN LIGHTON SYNGE
23 March 1897 — 30 March 1995
Biogr. Mems Fell. R. Soc. 54, 401–424 (2008)
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Downloaded from rsbm.royalsocietypublishing.org on August 8, 2012
JOHN LIGHTON SYNGE
23 March 1897 — 30 March 1995
Elected FRS 1943
BY PETROS S. FLORIDES
School of Mathematics, Trinity College Dublin, Dublin 2, Ireland
John Lighton Synge was arguably the greatest Irish mathematician and theoretical physicist
since Sir William Rowan Hamilton (1806–65). He was a prolific researcher of great originality and versatility, and a writer of striking lucidity and ‘clarity of expression’. He made
outstanding contributions to a vast range of subjects, and particularly to Einstein’s theory of
relativity. His approach to relativity, and theoretical physics in general, is characterized by his
extraordinary geometrical insight. In addition to bringing clarity and new insights to relativity, his geometrical approach profoundly influenced the development of the subject since the
1960s. His crusade in his long academic career was ‘to make space–time a real workshop for
physicists, and not a museum visited occasionally with a feeling of awe’ (31)*.
ANCESTRY
J. L. Synge was born in Dublin on 23 March 1897, the youngest of a family of four, Ada
Kathleen Frances, Edward Hutchinson and Victor Millington, in this order, being his siblings.
For simplicity we shall call Synge’s two brothers Hutchie and Millington, these being their
names in the family circle; Synge himself was called Jack by his family and some colleagues
(C. Synge Morawetz, personal communication, 2007). Synge was born with a growth on the
cornea of his left eye, which, as a result of surgery, became useless thereafter. At that time the
family lived at Rathe House on the estate of Lord Gormanston (1837–1907) in Kingscourt,
Co. Cavan. Lord Gormanston was Ireland’s senior viscount (the 14th Viscount Gormanston)
and had served as Governor of the Leeward Islands (1885–87), British Guiana (1887–93) and
Tasmania (1893–1900).
* Numbers in this form refer to the bibliography at the end of the text.
doi:10.1098/rsbm.2007.0040
403
This publication is © 2008 The Royal Society
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404
Biographical Memoirs
J. L. Synge’s father, Edward Synge (1859–1939), was the land agent for Lord Gormanston’s
estate and also for a number of other estates in County Mayo and County Wicklow. Of the
Wicklow estates the most substantial one was Glanmore Castle and its extensive surrounding
land. The castle, a ‘Gothic monstrosity situated in a beautiful glen near Ashford’ as J. L. Synge
had described it, was built by Francis Synge (1761–1831), J. L. Synge’s second-great-grandfather (that is, his great-great-grandfather) in the 1800s; it provided the tangible confirmation
that, by this time, the Synges were firmly established as Irish gentry. During the Land War
in the 1880s Edward Synge acquired a certain amount of notoriety for the harsh methods by
which he was evicting the tenants from the estates he was managing.
J. L. Synge’s mother was Ellen Frances Price (1861–1935), daughter of the distinguished Irish
engineer James Price. Synge thought that, in so far as it was genetic, his interest in mathematics was
inherited from this side of the family. The Price family can be traced back to the Stuarts of Scotland,
and in particular to Sir William Stuart, who settled in Ireland in the early seventeenth century.
In the male line, Synge’s family can be traced back to the sixteenth century, to Thomas
Millington, ‘Corruptly called Singe of Bridgnorth’, Bridgnorth being a town in the county of
Shropshire in central England. He was, by trade, a shoemaker and for many years he was a
chorister in Chester Cathedral. The father of Thomas, Canon Millington, was also ‘surnamed
Singe in regard he was a Canon …’, and his family can be traced back to Hugh de Mulneton
in the time of Henry II (1133–89) (Synge 1937). Many of the early Synges were millers and
tanners by profession. They took an active part in the governance of Bridgnorth as bailiffs,
and one of them, Richard Synge (1566–1631), J. L. Synge’s seventh-great-grandfather, was a
Member of Parliament for Bridgnorth.
According to tradition, the changing of the name from Millington to Synge originated with
Henry VIII (1491–1547), who commanded a Millington choirboy of particularly beautiful voice to
‘Singe, Millington, Singe.’ Originally the family name ranged over Synge, Syng, Singe and Sing,
but the present form Synge was well established by 1600; it is always pronounced as ‘sing’. It is
remarkable that the name Millington has survived so widely as a first name to the present day.
The arrival in the 1620s, and permanent settlement, in Ireland of Edward Synge (1614–78),
J. L. Synge’s sixth-great-grandfather and the eighth son of the above-mentioned Richard
Synge, formed the shoot that was to become the Irish branch of the family of Synges. Edward
was brought to Ireland by his eldest brother George (1594–1652), senior to Edward by 20
years, who had been in Ireland since 1621 and who was responsible for Edward’s education
at Drogheda School and Trinity College Dublin (TCD). George became Bishop of Cloyne in
1638 but, after the 1641 rebellion in Ireland and the loss of almost his entire estate, he returned
to England in the late 1640s without leaving any descendants behind; he died in 1652 and was
buried at Bridgnorth. Edward Synge became Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross in 1663.
J. L. Synge’s family were members of the Church of Ireland, and a great number of his distant ancestors attained high office in the Church. We have already encountered the two bishops
Edward and George. Pre-eminent among them, however, was Edward Synge (1659–1741), the
son of Bishop Edward Synge and J. L. Synge’s fifth-great-grandfather, who became Archbishop
of Tuam in 1716. The two bishops and the archbishop were much admired and respected both as
preachers and as scholars. The archbishop himself was the father of two bishops, Edward (1691–
1762) and Nicholas (?–1771), the latter being the fourth-great-grandfather of J. L. Synge. The
clustering of so many eminent churchmen in the same immediate family is probably unique.
The most distinguished distant ancestor of J. L. Synge was undoubtedly Hugh Hamilton
(1729–1805) (no relation to Sir William Rowan Hamilton). His granddaughter Isabella
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John Lighton Synge
405
Hamilton married J. L. Synge’s great-grandfather John Synge (1788–1845). J. L. Synge had
some reservations as to the greatness of Hugh Hamilton as a mathematician, but he did praise