One hundred and twenty years ago today (22 February 1903) was born one of the smartest people you’ve probably never heard of.
Back in December the King’s archives were given the originals of some rather exciting material.
We’d had black and white photocopies of some of it for a while, but now we have the real deal and it’s very exciting.
The baby in those photos above is Frank Plumpton Ramsey, who became one of the most significant contributors of the 20th century to the fields of philosophy, mathematics and economics. Students of Cambridge history may be familiar with his wife Lettice (of Ramsey & Muspratt), a local photographer of some repute. (It is Frank and Lettice’s grandchildren who have kindly given us the originals.) But unless you’re a combinatorialist, economic theorist or philosopher you have probably not heard of Frank. He was considered brilliant even in the company of Bertrand Russell, G.E. Moore, J.M. Keynes and Ludwig Wittgenstein – in fact Ramsey was chosen, aged 18, to make the first translation of Wittgenstein’s impenetrable (to most people including philosophers) Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922) into English from the German.
Frank was the eldest of what eventually became 4 siblings, so it must be him on the right side of this photo.
The other boy would then be his brother Michael, later Archbishop of Canterbury.
In school Frank was distinguished by his brilliant work and impossibly bad writing.
He was a local Cambridge boy and eventually attended King’s College School where – aged not quite 9 in a class of four boys at least some of whom were aged 12 and above – he was second in Division III in Latin and Mathematics. (The report card shown below, where it is torn for Michaelmas 1911 [French], reads ‘For his age, … promising and very intelligent’.) His maths report is also very good – except for his written presentation.
The next term he was second in Division II for Latin (a class of 9 boys) and third in Division II for Maths (out of 10 boys). His Summer 1912 report for Latin reads ‘He is far more advanced for his age than any boy that I have taught for 25 years – and attains the result without any undue pressure.’
Teachers were still confounded by his messy writing, which, although it became legible, remained pretty unpolished all his life.
He proceeded to Winchester aged 12 (in 1915).
In 1920 he came up to Trinity College, Cambridge before King’s snaffled him up as a Fellow, aged 21 (by some quick-witted actions on the part of a Bursar, Maynard Keynes).
As well as being brilliant, Frank had a strong ethical streak. One of his contributions to economics was to develop a theory of cost that included the well-being of future generations. He wrote that discounting the interests of future people is ‘ethically indefensible and arises merely from the weakness of the imagination’. (The Man Who Thought Too Fast, Anthony Gottlieb in The New Yorker, May 4, 2020, accessed 21 February 2023.)
His biographer says
He is perhaps most widely known for his trailbazing work on choice under conditions of uncertainty. His paper ‘Truth and Probability’ solved the problem of how to measure degrees of belief, and then provided a logic of partial belief and a model of subjective expected utility. These results underpin contemporary economics and Bayesian statistics, as well as much of psychology, artificial intelligence, and other social and physical sciences.
(Cheryl Misak, Frank Ramsey: A Sheer Excess of Powers [Oxford: OUP, 2020], p. xxv).
A leading 20th-century philosopher Donald Davidson in 1999 defined The Ramsey Effect as being ‘the phenomenon of finding out that your exciting and apparently original philosophical discovery has been already presented, and presented more elegantly, by Frank Ramsey’. (See e.g. https://blog.oup.com/2020/02/the-remarkable-life-of-philosopher-frank-ramsey/, accessed 21 February 2023).
He was an ‘amiable shambling bear of a man’ (over six feet tall) whose open-hearted good nature allowed him to get along with everyone, including the notoriously cantankerous Wittgenstein.
He died at the tender age of 26 (in January 1930) of jaundice, more of a symptom than a cause. It is postulated that the cause was Weil’s disease, caused by leptospirosis, a bacterium carried by the urine and faeces of animals such as might wash from Sheep’s Green or Coe Fen into the Cam, where he was an enthusiastic swimmer. October of 1929 had a few warm days, which is consistent both with the lifecycle of leptospirosis and with Ramsey taking a dip in the river.
Locals might be interested to know that Frank is buried in the Parish of the Ascension Burial Ground, on Huntingdon Road. Wittgenstein is also buried there.
The quote used as the title of this piece comes from J.M. Keynes, Essays in Biography [Bungay: Richard Clay & Co., 1951], p. 245.