The extraordinary life (and beliefs) of Mary Everest Boole

She was raised in a medical cult

Mary Everest was born in the tiny English village of Wickwar, Gloucestershire, in 1832. When she was five, an influenza outbreak swept Europe and her father became gravely ill. The family decided to pick up and move to Poissy, France, hoping to find a cure in the hands of the famous German doctor Samuel Hahnemann.

Fun fact: this beautiful face is on more memorials in Washington DC than Harriet Tubman

Hahnemann is famous for being the father of homeopathy, the treatment famous today for doing precisely nothing. Homeopaths believe in a doctrine of “similia similibus curentur” or “like cures like.” When one of his patients became sick, Hahnemann would find a substance that invoked similar symptoms and dilute it, using that as medicine. For example, an plant that caused a rash could be used as a treatment for a disease like chickenpox

In a time when bloodletting, leeches, and hitting people repeatedly were not uncommon medical practices, homeopathy was kind of a Big Deal. It was harmless, intuitive, and deceptively scientific–Hahnemann soon became a celebrity in the medical world. And Reverend Thomas Everest, Mary’s father, was Hahnemann’s biggest fan.

Oh, Hahnemann thought that coffee was the root of all maladies. Never mind harmless, gonna go with 100% evil here.

In France, the Everest family lived and devoted themselves to the Hahnemann way of life. Diets were strict. Every morning Mary and her brother woke up for long, tiring walks before breakfast. And baths were cold–like, really cold. Her nurse would often have to break the ice with a stick. In the classic homeopathic fashion, “quarrelsome” children were given sambucus–a poisonous plant. Ridiculous, right?

Wait…

Overall, Mary really enjoyed her time in the Paris suburbs. She mingled with the French, and learned the language. She later claimed she never learned to think in English, even after spending decades in England:

I have never [learned to think in English]. The English language contains no terminology in which it would be possible to express my kind of thought.
The French attitude certainly checks out

Sure, the house was cold and full of bats, but France was great and the children were thriving. Well…except for one small thing. The Paris suburbs were incredibly hard on Mary’s father. See, he was an English minister. And France, as it were, was full of Catholics.

This would not do.

The perfect pet for your health nut colony! Something this cute could never cause disease.

Thomas Everest pulled Mary out of Catholic school and she was given private lessons from a man who she later credited for her lifelong love of mathematics. Monsieur Deplace did not lecture but rather taught math as a series of interactive questions and answers. This was at sharp contrast to the accepted methods of teaching children at the time.

In contrast to the usual methods of teaching math at the time, which were: “don’t” and “memorize shit,” respectively, depending on if you were a girl or boy

She had one true love–mathematics

The Everest family moved back to England when she was eleven and she quickly learned that universities like Cambridge did not admit women. She became her father’s assistant, helping with sermons and Sunday School. Meanwhile, she taught herself algebra and calculus out of textbooks in her father’s library.

She loved, loved, loved math (at one point calling it ‘the dawning of the physical passions’) and had an almost religious devotion to the subject.

Unlike me, who still hasn’t forgiven God for inventing algebra

Mount Everest is named after her uncle

I should point out that Mary Everest’s name is not pronounced EVER-est (like the mountain) but rather EEV-rist (also, um, like the mountain). See, around this time, the British Geographical Society had discovered that the tallest mountain in the world was not the one they had previously thought. Instead, it was a peak in the Mahalangur region called Peak XV.

The British needed a better name for it. Previously, they had been respecting local names (like Dhaulagiri and Kangchenjunga), but Peak XV didn’t have any specific name among the peoples south of the region. Presumably they existed, but the governments of Nepal and Tibet were not letting the British in to survey the place and check. (and I guess they didn’t bother asking?)

Fuck it. Let’s name it after an English guy.

So the mountain was named after Sir George Everest, British surveyor, Mary’s uncle, and man-who-had-never-seen-Mt-Everest™ as a ‘compromise’. George Everest opposed the decision, saying his name could not be written or properly pronounced in Hindi. But despite his wishes, the mountain was named after him and the Everest family became well known.

She married George Boole, the inventor of Boolean algebra

A visit to her other uncle, John Ryall, at Cork College Ireland would cause her to meet her future husband. He was 35, she was 18.

George Boole at this point was an already distinguished mathematician. Self-taught, he had never gone to university. Instead, he had gotten his professorship at Cork College through a series of well respected papers on differential equations and logic. He was also a poet, polyglot, teacher, and social advocate. Today he is considered the ‘Father of Symbolic Logic’ and one of the earliest figures in computer science.

George Boole

He was also, by all accounts, a really great guy. Mary describes speaking to a woman in Ireland and inquiring about him:

‘What a favourite he seems to be’, I remarked. ‘He is no favourite of mine’, she said, ‘at least, I don’t enjoy his society. I don’t care to be with such very good people.’ I observed that I never should have suspected him of being too good to be agreeable. ‘Oh no,’ she said, ‘he never shows you that he thinks you wicked, but when you are near anyone so pure and holy, you can’t help feeling how shocked he must be at you. He makes me feel very wicked; but I am always at ease when the children are
Never seen anyone have an inferiority complex about niceness before

Mary Everest asked him to be her math tutor and they instantly hit it off. The two bonded over riveting ideas like, “How to most efficiently teach differential calculus?” and “Why fluxions are the coolest.” They wrote letters to each other, almost exclusively about math, for five years. Once, Mary brought up more:

“He begged me in a nervous, eager way, never to talk about such things to anyone but himself, as people would be sure to misunderstand me. Next day he put me through a long catechism as to what I intended to do with my life and ended by saying that as he was too old ever to think of marrying, he would, if I liked, be my friend and direct my education.”
Little did he know it was a trap! Her ‘type’ was math tutors!

This did not last. In 1855 Thomas Everest died, leaving her penniless. George Boole stepped in right away to support her and the two married almost immediately. He was 40, she was 23.

By all accounts, it was a happy marriage. The couple had five children, Mary Ellen, Margaret, Alice, Lucy, and Ethel.

George had promised her that she would be able to help him with his research, and Mary became the informal editor of his publications. She helped write A Treatise on Differential Equations and A Treatise on the Calculus of Finite Differences, the two textbooks Boole was best known for at the time. She even got a taste for university:

Hooray for equality?

The happy marriage, however, was cut short by her husband’s death. In November 1864, George Boole was walking to class in the cold Irish rain and caught pneumonia. Mary, still an advocate of homeopathy and believing that “like cured like,” pored buckets of cold water on her husband’s sheets and wrapped him in wet blankets.

This technique is commonly known as the “Bed, Bath, and Beyond”

Mary recalls reading John 3:8 to her husband on his deathbed:

Instead of somberly contemplating the somber passage for the somber occasion like normal people, it occurred to the two of them that Jesus was describing the “geometric figure of the dust-whirl…with its system of tangents and normals.”

George died of a fever-induced pleural effusion several weeks later. Mary Everest Boole would go on to live another fifty-two years.

The Athenaeum announced his death:

(he actually died on a Thursday)

Mary Everest Boole was left widowed with five daughters between the ages of one and eight. Suddenly without income, she moved to London and became a librarian at a governess’s school.

“The pupils were all women; the professors all men; women were admitted on the teaching staff only as subordinate assistants”

She was seriously overworked and her daughters rotated between London and staying with other family, such as their grandmother in Cork. It wasn’t uncommon for her to see them for only an hour a day.

Mary Everest Boole

Despite this, she managed to carve out a niche in the school and eventually obtained a position as a tutor in mathematics. She also held informal “Boolean logic” classes, lecturing about her late husband’s work.

She may have had a polygamous relationship with a man known as ‘The Wizard’

Around 1873, Mary Everest Boole was terminated from her employment at Queen’s College London. Accounts differ exactly as to why, but generally describe “an unstable character,” “temporary derangement,” and “dangerous ideas.” She then moved into the household of the Hintons.

James Hinton was born in Reading in 1822, the second oldest of eleven children. As a teenager he moved to London, worked as a cashier at a draper’s shop, and briefly travelled the world. He visited China, Sierra Leone, and Jamaica and served as a medical advisor to a ship carrying ‘free’ laborers to work on sugar plantations in Jamaica. Eventually he became an aural surgeon.

James Hinton

Hinton (aka the Wizard) believed that “the world indeed is wonderful; it is divine, spiritual, eternal. This is heaven. We do well to be intoxicated, ravished with its beauty… and wonder.” He believed that people were fundamentally good, and only corrupted by the society around them. Pleasure, especially bodily pleasure, was intrinsically good and a gift from god.

He was basically a Victorian hippy.

Hinton’s ideas did not line up with conservative views at the time, and Hinton became infamous as an advocate of sexual freedom and polygamy. One letter described him as such:

Either that, or someone’s jealous

In 1870, he declared, “How utterly all feeling of impurity is gone from the sexual passion in my mind! It stands before me absolutely as the taking of food.”

Hinton firmly believed that women were “truly sensuous…even more than men” and that attitudes towards marriage as a social institution were oppressive. To Hinton, sexual restraint was as dangerous and sinful as sexual overindulgence.

He also advocated for nudism and polygamy. At one point, Hinton compared the vagina to the nose, as both were “physiologically organs of excretion.” Why should one be covered up but not the other?

Sexy.

(Keep in mind that this was a time when women were routinely diagnosed with “hysteria”– a disease characterized by anxiety, sexual desire, insomnia, irritability, and loss of appetite. Today, this is known more formally as the condition of being “horny.”)

Right. We’re calling them “massages” now. Gotcha.

James Hinton believed all of societies problems could be solved with female sexual liberation. If single women weren’t so sad about not having sex, there wouldn’t be any more toxic female competition. And they didn’t need to be solely responsible for the family anymore–they could have careers as well! At one point he declared:

“Prostitution was dead, I have slain it.”
Was this the hero the gentler sex had been waiting for all along?

Other glorious quotes include:

The hero women needed, but didn’t yet deserve?

After Mary lost her job, some sources say she became either the assistant or secretary for Hinton. Others say they got together. Mark Blacklock writes:

What a mad lad.

The relations between Hinton and Boole broke down sometime before his death. In one of James’s last correspondences to his son, he bitterly regrets his actions in life:

haha, those two totally had an affair and it ended badly

His son, evidently, did not stay away from the Booles. Instead, he married Mary Everest Boole’s oldest daughter Mary Ellen. Then he married a second woman named Maud Florence. Then he …*drumroll please*… got convicted of bigamy and fled to Japan. Oopsie daisy?

She was an early advocate for math education

Mary Boole was one of the earliest advocates for math education in early childhood. She was adamantly against learning mathematics by rote, the typical Victorian method of repetition, and believed math and science should be about wonder.

She wrote the preface to Edith Somervell’s A Rhythmic Approach to Mathematics and was the author of several progressive educational papers such as The Preparation of the Child for Science and Philosophy and Fun of Algebra.

For example, to stimulate the geometric imagination, parents should place:

“A common night-light placed in the bottom of a deep round jar in a dark room throws on a sheet of cardboard held over it patterns of conic-sections, which pass into each other as you change the position of die cardboard. Children very early learn to love watching figures thrown in light.”

Here, she uses questions to teach children about numeration:

“What is this 1 ? And this, 2 ? And this, 3? (..and so on), and this, 9? Now I want to write ten: how shall I do it ? Put 1 and 0. But what has ten done to be different from the rest ? Why should it have two signs instead of one like its neighbours? and why does it take signs belonging to its neighbours, instead of having one of its own? Did ten ask to have two signs? Did it wish to have two? No; then why do we give it two?”

Mary Boole

Mary Boole hated the fact that most people didn’t understand why they did things in math and declared, “A child should not see a multiplication table until he has made one.” She firmly believed in the art of thinking. According to her, learning math and training oneself to think logically could “free people from bondage.” For example, is there a reason numbers are in base ten, or do people just mindlessly follow what they learned in school?

Superstitious nonsense, remember that

She studied mathematical psychology and encouraged children to use string to explore geometry through curve stitching and blocks, physics through magnets and static electricity, and biology through growing cress and watching gnats’ eggs.

Curve stitching

Algebra, to her, wasn’t just a type of math but something we do “whenever we arrange facts that we know round a centre which is a statement of what it is that we want to know and do nut know; and then proceed to deal logically with all the statements, including the statement of our own ignorance. Algebra can be made about anything which any human being wants to know about. Everybody ought to be able to make Algebras; and the sooner we begin the better.”

Her view on algebra was almost pantheistic–math was tied into the laws of logic and logic was a kind of manifestation of God.

She was an occultist and into other fringe ideas

Mary Everest Boole wrote and published over a fifteen hundred pages after her husband’s death. She corresponded with Charles Darwin and was a central figure in many of London’s more fringe cultural movements. Her home was always open to soirées and informal gathering famous literary, scientific, and cultural figures could attend. She were especially popular with occultists, antivivisectionists, vegetarians, homeopaths, anarchists, and educational psychologists.

Generally well regarded, she had her enemies as well. She was once called “as noble a being as I have ever known though streaked with extraordinary arrogance.” She managed to annoy H.G. Wells (the author of The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds), enough that he wrote her into one of his books as a villain!

From The New Machiavelli, Wells’s thinly disguised autobiography
Pictured: Mary Everest Boole attacking a ship, 1906

She spent her later years writing on ‘Indian mysticism,’ Hebrew ritual under David Woolf Marks, dowsing rods, the humanness of Christ, spiritualism, and the occult. She even believed she was a spiritual guide:

“My Father believed (and so do I) that every woman becomes at fifty potentially a medium, more or less. The temporary illness from which so many women suffer at this age is the effort of the mediumship to assert itself.”
Those hot flashes during menopause? They ghosts.

As well as dabbled in phrenology–the belief that bumps on the head could ascertain personality traits.

I, too, have a brain that extends below my eyes.

Animal magnetism was another popular topic. Founded by German doctor Franz Mesmer, it was the belief that an invisible force ran through all living beings. This force could be manipulated in attraction and repulsions, like a magnet. Practitioners were called mesmerizers and techniques often involved hypnosis (yup, the word mesmerize comes from his name). Mary once wrote:

Magneto-Jesus was apparently a late bloomer

Other predictions of hers were spot on, such as alluding to the development of the computer:

“And if I were asked to point out the two greatest benefactors to humanity that this century has produced, I think I should be inclined to mention Mr Babbage, who made a machine for working out series, and Mr Jevons, who made a machine for stringing together syllogisms. Between them they have conclusively proved, by unanswerable logic of facts, that calculation and reasoning, like weaving and ploughing, are work, not for human souls, but for clever combinations of iron and wood. If you spend tim
Her late husband’s work would be adopted by Claude Shannon and instrumental in the development of the computer

Other passages are…not so decipherable.

Something something, conducting intercourse with multidimensional aliens? Yeah no, she lost me a while back.

She founded a scientific dynasty

Mary Everest Boole died in 1916, at the age of 84. On her death bed she announced to her daughter:

Badass until the end.

Of Mary’s five daughters, one would marry a mathematician (and subsequently flee the country on his bigamy charges), one would became a mathematician (Alicia Boole Stott coined the term polytope and proved some interesting things about four dimensional shapes), another daughter would became one of England’s earliest female chemists, and another would became a famous author and have an affair with the spy who inspired James Bond (seriously).

The Boole grandchildren would invent the jungle gym, pioneer tuberculosis, create a portable X-ray, model Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, work on the Manhattan project, and discover several dozen species of beetles in Mexico.

Oh, and this family is still going at it. Her great-great-grandson, Geoffrey Everest Hinton, won the Turing Award (the most prestigious computer science prize) for his work on deep learning in 2018!

Further Reading:

The Booles and the Hintons by Gerry Kennedy

The Life and Work of George Boole by Desmond MacHale

New Light on George Boole by Desmond MacHale and Yvonne Cohen

https://mathshistory.st-andrews.ac.uk/Biographies/Boole_Mary/

https://www.ams.org/journals/notices/201911/rnoti-p1853

https://higherspace.wordpress.com/2009/06/12/rucker-on-boole-stott-hintons-bigamy/

have a podcast about the history of math @mathhistorypod