Nicolaus Bernoulli was a merchant in Basel, Switzerland. His family were
refugees fleeing from the massacre done by the Catholics in the Netherlands.
The family settled in Basel only after fleeing to Frankfurt from persecution
by the Spanish rulers. Nicolaus wanted his children to study religion and
medicine. Fortunately, three of his sons chose a different path in life
and studied mathematics. This is the story of two of the brother's lives,
Jacob and Johann, and their rivalry.
Jacob Bernoulli was born December 27th, 1654. In
1671 Jacob graduated from the University of Basel with
a master's degree in philosophy and in 1676 with a licentiate in theology.
Jacob studied philosophy and theology to oblige with his parents' wishes.
While working on these degrees, Jacob also studied mathematics and astronomy
against his parents wishes. Jacob was the first of the numerous Bernoullis
to study mathematics.
After graduation, Jacob began work as a tutor in Geneva. He traveled
to France, studying with the followers of Descartes for two years. Beginning
in 1681, Jacob continued his travels to the Netherlands and then to England
where he continued his studies with leading mathematicians and scientists.
Jacob returned to the University of Basel to teach mechanics in 1683. He turned down an appointment in the Church at this time.
One year later Jacob married Judith Stupanus. Together they had a son and
a daughter; neither became mathematicians.
In 1687, Jacob was appointed professor of mathematics at the University.
At this time the two brothers began studying the calculus as presented by
Leibniz. They were the first to try to understand Leibniz's work. Around
1695, Jacob was named as the chair of mathematics at the University of Basel.
He kept this position until he died in 1707 from tuberculosis. His tombstone
reads "Eadem Mutata Resurgo" meaning "I shall rise the same
The tenth child of Nicolaus Bernoulli, Johann was born on July 27th,
1667, twelve years after his brother Jacob. When Johann was 15 years old
he worked in the family spice trade for a year. This did not work out for
him so he entered the University of Basel to study medicine. While at the
university, Johann took courses in medicine and studied mathematics with
his brother Jacob. In only two years, Johann become the equal of his brother
in mathematical skill.
In 1691, Johann lectured on the differential calculus in Geneva. Like
his older brother, Johann went to France to study with great mathematicians.
Unlike Jacob, Johann met in Malebranche's circle rather than Descartes.
It was here that Johann taught l'Hôpital lessons in calculus. It is
important to point out that it is unclear if l'Hôpital's well known
calculus book was really the work of Johann. Some speculate that it was
Johann's work with the exception that l'Hôpital corrected many mistakes
In 1695, Johann was offered two chairs at universities. He chose to move
his wife, Droteha Falkner, and their seven- month old son Nicolaus, to Holland.
Nicolaus and his brothers Daniel and Johann also became mathematicians.
Throughout Johann's life he lost a six-week old daughter, was once falsely
reported dead from a severe illness, and was involved in numerous religious
disputes. In these religious disputes, he was accused of denying the resurrection
of the body and opposing the Calvinist faith.
Johann and his family returned to Basel in 1705. The decision to move
home was based on the fact that Johann's father-in-law was deathly ill.
Johann learned of Jacob's death when he arrived in Basel. This is ironic
since the start of his journey home was two days after Jacob passed away.
Johann replaced his brother, taking over the chair of mathematics in Basel.
It is rumored that he turned down up to four offers while serving at this
position. His father-in-law lived for three years after Johann's family
Johann died January 1st, 1748 in Basel, Switzerland. On his tombstone
is inscribed "Archimedes of his age", which is how he is remembered.
1697 became a critical year in Jacob and Johann's relationship. This seems to be the year documented as the point where the two turned from brothers into rivals. In the stories written about the two brothers it seems that each story blames someone different for the rivalry. Some blame Jacob for not giving credit to Johann's abilities. Others stories blame both brothers for being jealous of each other. Yet still one story even blames Johann since he was a man of violent likes and dislikes. One example is that he hated Newton because he was first friends with Leibniz. One benefit from this rivalry is that each brother was always trying to "outdo" the other and thus became great mathematicians.
Bell, E. T. (1937). Men of Mathematics. New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc.
Motz, L. & Weaver, J. H. (1993). The Story of Mathematics. New York: Plenum Press.