Isaac Barrow (1630-1677), English mathematician and divine, was the son of Thomas Barrow, a linen-draper in London, belonging to an old Suffolk and Cambridgeshire family. His uncle was Bishop Isaac Barrow of St Asaph (1614-1680). He was at first placed for two or three years at the Charterhouse school. There, however, his conduct gave but little hopes of his ever succeeding as a scholar. But after his removal from this establishment to Felsted school in Essex, where Martin Holbeach was master, his disposition took a happier turn; and having soon made considerable progress in learning, he was in 1643 entered at St Peter's College, and afterwards at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he applied himself to the study of literature and science, especially of natural philosophy. He at first intended to adopt the medical profession, and made some progress in anatomy, botany and chemistry, after which he studied chronology, geometry and astronomy. He then travelled in France and Italy, and in a voyage from Leghorn to Smyrna gave proofs of great personal bravery during an attack made by an Algerine pirate. At Smyrna he met with a kind reception from the English consul, Mr Bretton, upon whose death he afterwards wrote a Latin elegy.
From this place he proceeded to Constantinople, where he received similar civilities from Sir Thomas Bendish, the English ambassador, and Sir Jonathan Dawes, with whom he afterwards contracted an intimate friendship. While at Constantinople he read and studied the works of St Chrysostom, whom he preferred to all the other Fathers. He resided in Turkey somewhat more than a year, after which he proceeded to Venice, and thence returned home through Germany and Holland in 1659.
Immediately on his reaching England he received ordination from Bishop Brownrig, and in 1660 he was appointed to the Greek professorship at Cambridge. When he entered upon this office he intended to have prelected upon the tragedies of Sophocles; but he altered his intention and made choice of Aristotle's rhetoric. His lectures on this subject, having been lent to a friend who never returned them, are irrecoverably lost. In July 1662 he was elected professor of geometry in Gresham College, on the recommendation of Dr John Wilkins, master of Trinity College and afterwards bishop of Chester; and in May 1663 he was chosen a fellow of the Royal Society, at the first election made by the council after obtaining their charter. The same year the executors of Henry Lucas, who, according to the terms of his will, had founded a mathematical chair at Cambridge, fixed upon Barrow as the first professor; and although his two professorships were not inconsistent with each other, he chose to resign that of Gresham College, which he did on the 20th of May 1664. In 1669 he resigned his mathematical chair to his pupil, Isaac Newton, having now determined to renounce the study of mathematics for that of divinity.
Upon quitting his professorship Barrow was only a fellow of Trinity College; but his uncle gave him a small sinecure in Wales, and Dr Seth Ward, bishop of Salisbury, conferred upon him a prebend in that church. In the year 1670 he was created doctor in divinity by mandate; and, upon the promotion of Dr Pearson to the see of Chester, he was appointed to succeed him as master of Trinity College by the king's patent, bearing the date of the 13th of February 1672. In 1675 Dr Barrow was chosen vice-chancellor of the university. He died on the 4th of May 1677, and was interred in Westminster Abbey, where a monument, surmounted by his bust, was soon after erected by the contributions of his friends.
By his English contemporaries Barrow was considered a mathematician second only to Newton. Continental writers do not place him so high, and their judgment is probably the more correct one. He was undoubtedly a clear-sighted and able mathematician, who handled admirably the severe geometrical method, and who in his Method of Tangents approximated to the course of reasoning by which Newton was afterwards led to the doctrine of ultimate ratios; but his substantial contributions to the science are of no great importance, and his lectures upon elementary principles do not throw much light on the difficulties surrounding the border-land between mathematics and philosophy. (See Infinitesimal Calculus.) His Sermons have long enjoyed a high reputation; they are weighty pieces of reasoning, elaborate in construction and ponderous in style.
His scientific works are very numerous. The most important are: - Euclid's Elements; Euclid's Data; Optical Lectures, read in the public school of Cambridge; Thirteen Geometrical Lectures; The Works of Archimedes, the Four Books of Apollonius's Conic Sections, and Theodosius's Spherics, explained in a New Method; A Lecture, in which Archimedes' Theorems of the Sphere and Cylinder are investigated and briefly demonstrated; Mathematical Lectures, read in the public schools of the university of Cambridge. The above were all written in Latin. His English works have been collected and published in four volumes folio.
See Ward, Lives of the Gresham Professors, and Whewell's biography prefixed to the 9th volume of Napier's edition of Barrow's Sermons.