Lot 207 of 429:
'America's 1st Jewish Professor', Mathematician, letter to Poe's Doctor  

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Lot closed - Sold For (Includes Buyers Premium):$600
$1,000 - $1,500

British Mathematician, called 'America's 1st Jewish Professor', rare letter to the Doctor of Poe and Melville, after a harrowing American "adventure"

Sylvester, J.J. [James Joseph]



June 13, 1846


Autograph Letter Signed. 3pp.+ stampless address leaf. To Dr. [John W.] Francis, M.D., New York: Thanks for his “kindness…bestowed upon me when in New York [to] which as a stranger I had no claim…” He wished “some of our…prejudiced Islanders, the Japanese of the West” could “have the good fortune to become acquainted” with men like Francis, “when they class all Americans as Cold and Calculating.”  Since his return to London, he was “more comfortably settled than I had reason to anticipate… and my prospects are not discouraging. Perhaps the experience of life of men and the world acquired during my American adventure have not been without their lesson…” He closes with a cryptic and somewhat illegible plea to the Doctor to be “forgiving in view of my [conduct?]’”

James Joseph, a British Jew with a Cockney accent, who adopted the surname Sylvester, was one of the great Mathematicians of  mid-19th century, “chief creator of the formal language of modern science”  - he coined terms like “graph”. He has also been called “America’s First Jewish Professor” - the first observant Jew “to fill a full-time professorship in a secular subject” in the United States, after being denied professional advancement in England because of his religion.

At age 26, Sylvester taught Mathematics at the University of Virginia, though only for a few months, abruptly resigning after stabbing a belligerent anti-Semitic student with a sword-cane in self-defense. Fleeing to New York – where he was again professionally rebuffed because of his religion, this time at Columbia – he was warmly welcomed by some of America’s leading young pioneering scientists. This letter reveals that, unknown to his biographers, Sylvester was also hosted in New York by the eminent Dr. Francis, founder of the New York Academy of Medicine, and personal physician to the alcoholic Edgar Allen Poe and the parents of Herman Melville. Francis (who does not appear in the definitive Sylvester biography) undboutedly met the Professor through his wife’s nephew, Sam Ward, rich bon vivant who held a German doctorate in Math and went on to become “King” of Washington Lobbyists. Sylvester returned to the United States in the 1870s, to head the Math Department at Johns Hopkins and to found the first mathematical journal in America.
Rare. We could find no record of any Sylvester letter sold at a major auction house in recent decades.

Lot Amendments

Paper tear from seal opening, with loss of a few letters; small remnant of non-archival tape

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