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Keill, John

1. Dates
Born: Edinburgh, 1 Dec. 1671
Died: Oxford, 31 Aug. 1721
Dateinfo: Dates Certain
Lifespan: 50
2. Father
Occupation: Gentry
This is an informed surmise. It is known that Keill's grandfather was of the prosperous gentry, and that the father of his uncle, Dr. William Cockburn, was a man of some estate.
No information on financial status. I choose not to guess, but I will note that Keill's younger brother, James, was able to travel about the continent for six years, studying medicine but without visible means of support.
3. Nationality
Birth: Scottish
Career: English
Death: English
4. Education
Schooling: Edinburgh; Oxford, M.A.
A school in Edinburgh.
Edinburgh University; M.A., 1692. The M.A. was the basic degree in a Scottish university; I count it as equivalent to a B.A.
Oxford University, Balliol, 1691-4; M.A., 1694.
M.D. conferred by Oxford in 1713 as he took up the Savilian chair. I will not list this degree.
5. Religion
Affiliation: Anglican
Keill was a high church Anglican.
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Physics, Mathematics, Natural Philosophy
Keill's first publication, An Examination of Dr. Burnet's Theory of the Earth, 1698, was an attack on cosmogonical theories of the origin of the universe held by some mechanical philosophers.
Keill became a propagator of Newtonian philosophy. Introductio ad veram physicam, 1701 (later also in English). Keill constantly compared the atheistic tendencies in Cartesian natural philosophy with the Newtonian philosophy.
An article on short range forces between particles in the Philosophical Transactions.
Introductio ad veram astronomicam, 1718 (also later in English).
Euclides elementorum libri priores sex, 1715, with treatises on trigonometry and logarithms attached.
As is well known, Keill became Newton's champion (or mouthpiece) in the priority dispute.
7. Means of Support
Primary: Academia, Government
Secondary: Schoolmastering, Patronage, Personal Means
In 1694, after he had followed David Gregory to Oxford, Keill began to deliver experimental lectures on Newtonian philosophy in his chamber in Balliol. Later he was appointed as lecturer in experimental philosophy in Hart Hall.
Deputy to Thomas Millington, Professor of natural philosophy, 1699-1709.
Treasurer for the refugees from the Palatinate, 1709-11. The sources all refer to this as a governmental position. Keill conducted the refugees to New England. When he returned in 1711, Harley (later Earl of Oxford) supported him for about nine months.
Decipherer to Queen Anne, 1712-16.
Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford, 1717-21.
He inherited a large fortune from his brother, James Keill, in 1719, but he did not live to enjoy it for long.
8. Patronage
Types: Court Official, Government Official, Eccesiastic Official, Scientist, Aristrocrat
Keill's book against Burnet attracted the attention of Dean Aldrich of Christ Church, and it seems clear that from this time his career floated on high church patronage. Through the influence of Aldrich, he became Millington's deputy, and was elected to the Royal Society. I assume that the high church connection was behind Harley's patronage of him. Aldrich arranged for a place for him in Christ Church. I assume that the same influences stood behind his ultimate appointment to the Savilian Chair.
Queen Anne.
Robert Harley helped him become treasurer for the refugees in 1709, supported him for nine months, and arranged for him to be decipherer to the Queen,
He was very much Newton's client in the priority dispute with Leibniz. As far as I know, his reward for his service was not monetary.
The Duchess of Chandos requested his English edition of Vera astronomia, and to her he dedicated it.
9. Technological Involvement
Types: None
10. Scientific Societies
Memberships: None
Informal Connections: Friendship with David Gregory, whom he followed from Edinburgh to Oxford. In his last fifteen years he was largely occupied in maintaining Newton's priority.
Royal Society, 1700.
  1. Sir David Brewster, Memoirs of the Life, Writing and Correspondence of Sir Isaac Newton, pp. 335, 341-2.
  2. Frank Manuel, Portrait of Isaac Newton, (Cambridge, Mass., 1968), pp. 271-8, 321-3, 329, 335-8, 351, 399, 456.
  3. Robert Schofield, Mechanism and Materialism, (Princeton, 1969), pp. 25-30, 42-4.
  4. Dictionary of National Biography (repr., London: Oxford University Press, 1949-1950) 10, 1198-9. Biographia Britannica, 1st ed. (London, 1747-66), 4, 2801-8.
  5. James E. Force, "Some Eminent Newtonians and Providential Geophysics at the Turn of the Seventeenth Century," Earth Sciences History, 2 (1983), 4-10.
  6. Anita Guerrini, "The Tory Newtonians: Gregory, Pitcairne, and their Circle," Journal of British Studies, 25 (1986), 288-311.
Compiled by:
Richard S. Westfall
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Indiana University

Note: the creators of the Galileo Project and this catalogue cannot answer email on geneological questions.

1995 Al Van Helden
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