Dorothy Wrinch and Harold Jeffreys: Biographical Sketches

Harold Jeffreys (1891-1989) is a towering figure in geophysics, widely recognized as one of the founding fathers of this field. In the 1930s and 1940s, he and his student Keith Bullen developed some of the earliest detailed earth models based on observations of travel times of seismic waves (see Bullen 1975). His textbook on geophysics, The Earth, went through six editions in five decades and was a standard reference for geophysicists into the late twentieth century. Jeffreys is also known to philosophers of probability for his objective Bayesian views, propounded in two books, Scientific Inference (1931) and The Theory of Probability (1939). There is substantive work by historians and philosophers on Jeffreys’s later views on probability and his clashes with R. A. Fisher over the interpretation of probability (see, e.g., Howie 2002), but this paper will focus on an earlier period in his life. Jeffreys attended Cambridge in the early 1910s, and then became a fellow of St. John’s College in 1914. This paper focuses on the period from the 1910s through the 1920s, when Jeffreys wrote the series of papers with Dorothy Wrinch.

Dorothy Wrinch (1894-1976) is a lesser-known figure in comparison to Harold Jeffreys, but she made important contributions to a wide range of fields, including mathematics and biology, not to mention philosophy, and has recently been the subject of a biography (Senechal 2012). Wrinch started out reading mathematics at Girton College, Cambridge, but became interested in epistemology and logic, probably through her mentor at Girton, Constance Jones, an early female logician. Wrinch was among a group of young philosophers that Bertrand Russell invited to study privately with him in London in 1916 when his lectureship at Trinity College was revoked for his outspoken opposition to the war. For the next couple of years, she studied philosophy and became a part of social circles surrounding Russell in London. Because Russell did not have an official lectureship at Cambridge anymore, Wrinch went back to Cambridge to study mathematics at the post-graduate level under the mathematician G. H. Hardy, but with Russell as a sort of background supervisor.

At some point in around 1916-1917, she befriended Harold Jeffreys, who at the time was apparently a regular attendee of Cambridge philosophy events. They discovered that they had a shared interest in the application of philosophy to science, and spent the summer of 1919 discussing the scientific method, and probably working on their first co-authored papers. This is the year of Eddington’s famous solar eclipse expedition to confirm Einstein’s theory of gravity, and Cambridge was buzzing with discussions of the theory of relativity and the scientific method. In the late 1910s through the 1920s, Wrinch was an active member on the Cambridge philosophical scene, publishing a dozen papers (not counting her co-publications with Jeffreys) in Mind and Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society on a variety of philosophical topics, mainly focusing on epistemology and scientific method. Later in the 1930s, she became a member of the Theoretical Biology Club, a circle of biologists including Joseph Woodger, J. D. Bernal, Joseph Needham, and Conrad Waddington, who were interested in applying the tools of logic and philosophy to problems in biology.[1] Wrinch then went on to do important work in biology, particularly on protein structure (see Senechal 2012).

  • [1] Daniel Nicholson and Richard Gawne gave a talk on Woodger at the Vienna conference. An interesting question which I am not at present able to answer is to what extent the philosophical viewsof Woodger and Wrinch were influenced by each other.
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