Benjamin Peirce

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For others with a similar name, see Benjamin Pierce.

Benjamin Peirce (April 4, 1809October 6, 1880) was an American mathematician who taught at Harvard University for forty years. He made contributions in celestial mechanics, number theory, algebra, and philosophy of mathematics.

After graduating from Harvard, he became a tutor there (1829), then was appointed professor of mathematics in 1831. He added astronomy to his portfolio in 1842, and remained as Harvard professor until his death. In addition, he was instrumental in the development of Harvard's science curriculum, served as the school's librarian, and was director of the U.S. Coast Survey from 1867 from 1874.

In number theory, he proved there is no odd perfect number with fewer than four prime factors.

In algebra, he was notable for the study of associative algebras. He first introduced the terms idempotent and nilpotent to describe elements of these algebras.

In the philosophy of mathematics, he became known for the statement that "Mathematics is the science that draws necessary conclusions", and believed, along with George Boole, that mathematics could be used to analyze logic. This was in opposition to the program of Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell to base mathematics on logic.

He was an expert witness in the Howland will forgery trial. His analysis of the signature in question showed that it resembled another particular handwriting example so closely that the chances of such a match were statistically extremely remote.

His son Charles Peirce was also an accomplished scientist and scholar.


  • Physical and Celestial Mathematics, (Boston: Little, Brown, 1855)
  • An Elementary Treatise on Plane and Spherical Trigonometry (1861)
  • Linear Associative Algebra (1880)


  • P. Meier and S. Zaibel, "Benjamin Pierce and the Howland Will", Journal of the American Statistical Association 75, 497–506 (1980)

External link

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