Sir Harold Jeffreys
Black and white portrait photograph of Sir Harold Jeffreys looking into the camera. He is wearing a shirt, tie and jacket. He has a moustache and is wearing spectacles.
Born(1891-04-22)22 April 1891
Died18 March 1989(1989-03-18) (aged 97)
Cambridge, England
Alma materArmstrong College
St John's College, Cambridge
Known forJeffreys prior
Jeffreys model
WKBJ approximation
SpouseBertha Swirles
AwardsSmith's Prize (1915)
Adams Prize (1926)
Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society (1937)
Fellow of the Royal Society (1925)[1]
Murchison Medal (1939)
Royal Medal (1948)
William Bowie Medal (1952)
Guy Medal (Gold, 1962)
Vetlesen Prize (1962)
Wollaston Medal (1964)
Scientific career
Doctoral studentsHermann Bondi[2]
Sydney Goldstein
Vasant Huzurbazar
Plaque to Sir Harold Jeffreys, Newcastle University

Sir Harold Jeffreys, FRS[1][3] (22 April 1891 – 18 March 1989) was a British geophysicist who made significant contributions to mathematics and statistics. His book, Theory of Probability, which was first published in 1939, played an important role in the revival of the objective Bayesian view of probability.[4][5][6]


Jeffreys was born in Fatfield, County Durham, England, the son of Robert Hal Jeffreys, headmaster of Fatfield Church School, and his wife, Elizabeth Mary Sharpe, a school teacher.[7] He was educated at his father's school and at Rutherford Technical College, then studied at Armstrong College in Newcastle upon Tyne (at that time part of the University of Durham) and with the University of London External Programme.[8][9]

Jeffreys subsequently won a scholarship to study the Mathematical Tripos at St John's College, Cambridge, where he established a reputation as an excellent student: obtaining first-class marks for his papers in Part One of the Tripos, he was a Wrangler in Part Two, and in 1915 he was awarded the prestigious Smith's Prize.[9]


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Jeffreys became a fellow of St John's College in 1914, retaining his fellowship until his death 75 years later. At the University of Cambridge he taught mathematics, then geophysics and finally became the Plumian Professor of Astronomy.

In 1940, he married fellow mathematician and physicist, Bertha Swirles (1903–1999), and together they wrote Methods of Mathematical Physics.

One of his major contributions was on the Bayesian approach to probability (also see Jeffreys prior), as well as the idea that the Earth's planetary core was liquid.[10]

By 1924 Jeffreys had developed a general method of approximating solutions to linear, second-order differential equations, including the Schrödinger equation. Although the Schrödinger equation was developed two years later, Wentzel, Kramers, and Brillouin were apparently unaware of this earlier work, so Jeffreys is often neglected when credit is given for the WKB approximation.[11]

Jeffreys received the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1937, the Royal Society's Copley Medal in 1960, and the Royal Statistical Society's Guy Medal in Gold in 1962. In 1948, he received the Charles Lagrange Prize from the Académie royale des Sciences, des Lettres et des Beaux-Arts de Belgique.[12] He was knighted in 1953.

From 1939 to 1952 he was established as Director of the International Seismological Summary further known as International Seismological Centre.

The textbook Probability Theory: The Logic of Science, written by the physicist and probability theorist Edwin T. Jaynes, is dedicated to Jeffreys. The dedication reads, "Dedicated to the memory of Sir Harold Jeffreys, who saw the truth and preserved it."

It is only through an appendix to the third edition of Jeffreys' book Scientific Inference that we know about Mary Cartwright's method of proving that the number π is irrational.

Opposition to continental drift and plate tectonics

Jeffreys, like many of his peers, staunchly opposed the concept of continental drift as put forth by Alfred Wegener and Arthur Holmes. This opposition persisted even into the 1960s among his colleagues at Cambridge. For him, continental drift was "out of the question" because no force even remotely strong enough to move the continents across the Earth's surface was evident.[13] As geological and geophysical evidence for continental drift and plate tectonics mounted in the 1960s and after, to the point where it became the unifying concept of modern geology, Jeffreys remained a stubborn opponent of the theory to his death.

Honours and awards



  1. ^ a b c Cook, A. (1990). "Sir Harold Jeffreys. 2 April 1891–18 March 1989". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. 36: 302–326. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1990.0034. S2CID 71454940.
  2. ^ Roxburgh, I. W. (2007). "Hermann Bondi 1 November 1919–10 September 2005: Elected FRS 1959". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. 53: 45–61. doi:10.1098/rsbm.2007.0008. S2CID 70786803.
  3. ^ "Errata: Sir Harold Jeffreys. 2 April 1891–18 March 1989". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. 37: 491. 1991. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1991.0025.
  4. ^ Jaynes, E. T. (2003). Probability Theory: The Logic of Science. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-59271-2.
  5. ^ O'Connor, John J.; Robertson, Edmund F., "Harold Jeffreys", MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive, University of St Andrews
  6. ^ Robert, C.P.; Chopin, N.; Rousseau, J. (2009). "Harold Jeffreys's Theory of Probability Revisited". Statistical Science. 24 (2): 141–172. arXiv:0804.3173. doi:10.1214/09-STS284.
  7. ^ Biographical Index of Former Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1783–2002 (PDF). The Royal Society of Edinburgh. July 2006. ISBN 0-902-198-84-X.
  8. ^ "Papers and Correspondence of Sir Harold Jeffreys". Archived from the original on 18 September 2018. Retrieved 17 September 2008.
  9. ^ a b Cook, Alan [rev.], "Jeffreys, Sir Harold (1891–1989)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edition, September 2004. Retrieved 1 January 2023. (subscription required)
  10. ^ Bolt, B. A. (1982). "The Constitution of the Core: Seismological Evidence". Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences. 306 (1492): 11–20. Bibcode:1982RSPTA.306...11B. doi:10.1098/rsta.1982.0062. S2CID 120731079.
  11. ^ Igorʹ Vasilʹevich Andrianov; Jan Awrejcewicz; L. I. Manevitch; Leonid Isaakovich Manevich (2004). Asymptotical mechanics of thin-walled structures. Berlin: Springer-Verlag. p. 471. ISBN 3-540-40876-2.
  12. ^ "Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory - Biography of Vetlesen Prize Winner - Sir Harold Jeffreys". Archived from the original on 28 November 2009. Retrieved 30 August 2009.
  13. ^ Lewis, Cherry (2002). The dating game: one man's search for the age of the Earth. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. p. 159. ISBN 0-521-89312-7.
  14. ^ Uhler, Horace Scudder (1929). "Review: Operational methods in mathematical physics, by H. Jeffreys". Bull. Amer. Math. Soc. 35 (6): 882–883. doi:10.1090/s0002-9904-1929-04822-5.
  15. ^ Struik, D. J. (1939). "Review: Scientific inference by H. Jeffreys". Bull. Amer. Math. Soc. 45 (3): 213–215. doi:10.1090/s0002-9904-1939-06947-4.
  16. ^ Jeffreys, Harold (13 December 1973). Scientific Inference (3rd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-08446-6.
  17. ^ Taylor, J. H. (1933). "Review: Cartesian tensors, by H. Jeffreys". Bull. Amer. Math. Soc. 39 (9): 661. doi:10.1090/s0002-9904-1933-05715-4.
  18. ^ Dodd, Edward L. (1940). "Review: Theory of probability, by H. Jeffreys". Bull. Amer. Math. Soc. 46 (9, Part 1): 739–741. doi:10.1090/s0002-9904-1940-07280-5.
  19. ^ Synge, J. L. (1948). "Review: Methods of mathematical physics, by H. Jeffreys and B. S. Jeffreys". Bull. Amer. Math. Soc. 54 (3): 300–303. doi:10.1090/s0002-9904-1948-08974-1.

Further reading