Engraving of Isaac Milner
Isaac Milner DD., Dean of Carlisle and President of Queens' College Cambridge, Engraved by H. Meyer from an original Drawing by J. Jackson.
Born in Leeds, Milner was the third son of an unsuccessful business man. Having shown early signs of intellectual ability as a pupil at Leeds Grammar School, his father’s untimely death compelled Isaac to abandon schooling to begin an apprenticeship in a woollen mill. It was due to his brother, Joseph’s early career success (having become Head Master at Hull Grammar) that Isaac was eventually sent to Queens’ in 1772. There the ignominy of having to undertake menial tasks as a Sizar was partially allayed when he graduated with the distinction of Senior Wrangler (‘incomparabilis’) in 1774. Assisted by his sage and somewhat imperious demeanor, Milner’s rise within Queens’ and the University as a whole was meteoric. Having accepted positions at Queens’ as a fellow (1776) and tutor (1777) Milner quickly established a reputation as both natural philosopher and evangelical cleric. With his talent for mathematics, suspicion of French philosophy, and adherence to English Newtonian science Milner was increasingly influential in all aspects of the university’s curriculum and wider ethos in late Georgian times. In 1783 Milner was elected as Jacksonian professor of Natural Philosophy, in 1788 he became president of Queens’, and in 1798 he finally secured a long standing goal: the Lucasian professorship of mathematics, a chair that had been held a century earlier by Isaac Newton.
Amidst mounting fear of French invasion Milner was quick to dismiss scientific innovation from across the channel which, he claimed, would impregnate young minds with revolutionary patterns of thought. Moreover, in contrast to many closer to home who saw God’s infinite wisdom in nature, Milner looked to natural philosophy more as a means to establish reason through methodology. For Milner and other Cantabrigians of like mind, a strict regime of Newtonian philosophy offered an excellent antidote against materialism and atheism because it forced students to think soundly:
'I have often contended, the best answer that we could give to persons who sometimes accuse resident members of the University of Cambridge of employing their time too much in mathematics and natural philosophy was to inform them, that our lectures on these subjects were subservient to the cause of religion; for that we endeavored, not only to fix in the minds of young students the most important truths, but also to habituate them to reason.'
(Isaac Milner, Strictures on some of the Publications of the Reverend Herbert Marsh, D.D., 1813, p. 230)