John Pell was the son of John Pell, of Southwick in Sussex, in which parish he was born, on St David's Day (March 1) 1610.
His father was a divine but a kind of non-conformist; of the Pells of Lincolnshire, an ancient family; his mother of the Hollands of Kent. His father died when his son John was but five years old and six weeks, and left him an excellent library.
He went to school at the free school at Steyning, a borough town in Sussex, at the first founding of the school; an excellent schoolmaster, John Jeffreys. At thirteen years and a quarter old he went as good a scholar to Cambridge, to Trinity College, as most Masters of Arts in the University (he understood Latin., Greek and Hebrew), so that he played not much (one must imagine) with his schoolfellows, for, when they had play-days. or after school time, he spent his time in the library aforesaid.
He never stood at any election of fellows or scholars (of the House at) Trinity College.
Of person he was very handsome, and of a very strong and excellent habit of body, melancholic, sanguine, dark brown hair with an excellent moist curl.
Before he went first out of England he understood these languages (besides his mother tongue, viz. Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, Italian, French. Spanish, German and Dutch.
In 1632 he married Ithamara Reginalds, second daughter to Mr Henry Reginalds of London. He had by her four sons and four daughters.
Dr Pell has said to me that he did believe that he solved some questions (not without God's help).
In 1643 he went to Amsterdam, in December; was there Professor of Mathematics, next after Martinus Hortensius, about two years.
1646, the prince of Orange called for him to be public professor of philosophy and mathematics at the High School at Breda, that was founded that year by His Highness; see the Doctor's inaugural oration there.
He returned into England, 1652.
In 1654, Oliver, Lord Protector, sent him envoye' [as envoy] to the Protestant cantons of Switzerland; he resided chiefly at Zurich. He was sent out with the title of legate but afterwards he had order to continue there with the title of Resident.
In 1658, he returned into England and so little before the death of Oliver Crornwell that he never saw him since he was Protector.
Memorandum -- when he took his leave from Zurich, June 23, 1658, he made a Latin speech, which I have seen.
Memorandum that in his negotiation he did no disservice to King Charles II, nor to the church, as may appear by his letters which are in the Secretary of State's office.
Richard Cromwell, Protector, did not fully pay him for his business in Piedmont, whereby he was in some want; and so when King Charles II was restored, Dr Sandersori, bishop of Lincoln, persuaded him to take Holy Orders. He was riot adroit for preaching.
When King Charles II had been at home ten months, Mr John Pell first took orders. He was made deacon upon the last of March, 1661, by bishop Sanderson of Lincoln, by whom he was made priest in June following.
Gilbert Sheldon, bishop of London procured for him the parsonage of Fobbing in Essex, 1661, and two years after (1663) gave him the parsonage of Laindon with the attached chapel of Bartlesdon in the same county, which benefices are in the infamous and unhealthy (feverish) hundreds of Essex.
Mr Edward Waller on the death of the countess of Warwick:
Curst be alreadie those Essexian plaines
Where ... Death and Horrour reignes -- etc.
At Fobbing seven curates died within the first ten years; in sixteen years, six of these that had been his curates at Laindon are dead; besides these that went away from both places; and the death of his wife, servants and grandchildren.
Gilbert Sheldon being made archbishop of Canterbury, 1663, John Pell was made one of his Cambridge chaplains; and complaining one day to his Grace at Lambeth of the unhealthiness of his benefice as abovesaid, said my Lord, 'I do not intend that you shall live there.' 'No', said Doctor Pell, 'I shall die there.'
Now by this time (1680) you doubt not but this great, learned man, famous both at home and abroad, has obtained some considerable dignity in the church. You ought not in modesty to guess at less that than a deanery. -- Why, truly, he is staked to this poor preferment still. For though the parishes are large, yet (curates, etc. paid for) he clears not above three score pound (60) per annum (hardly fourscore) and lives in an obscure lodging, three stories high, in Jermyn Street, next to the sign of the ship, wanting not only books but his own MSS which are many. Many of them are at Brereton at my lord Brereton's in Cheshire.
Memorandum: Lord Brereton was sent to Breda to receive the instruction of this worthy person by his grandfather (George Goring, the earl of Norwich) in 1647, where he stayed for some years, where he became a good practitioner, especially in algebra to which his genius most inclined him and which he used to his dying day, which was 17 March 1680; lies buried in St Martin's church in-the-fields. I cannot but mention this noble lord but with a great deal of passion, for a more virtuous person (besides his great learning) I never knew. I have had the honour of his acquaintance since his coming from Breda into England. Never was there greater love between master and scholar than between Dr Pell and this scholar of his, whose death March 17, 1680 has deprived this worthy doctor, of an ingenious companion and a useful friend.
Dr Pell has often said to me that when he solves a question he strains every nerve about him, and that now in his old age it brings him to a looseness.
Dr J. Pell was the first inventor of that excellent way or method of the marginal working in algebra.
He could not cringe and sneak for preferment, though otherwise no man more humble nor more communicative. He was cast into King's Bench prison, for debt September 7, 1680.
In March 1682 he was very kindly invited by Daniel Whistler, MD, to live with him at the Physicians College in London, where he was very kindly entertained About the middle of June he fell extremely sick of a cold and removed to a grandchild of his married to one Mr Hastings in St Margaret's Churchyard, Westminster, near the tower, who now (1684) lives in Browlow Street in Drury Lane, where he was almost burnt in his bed by a candle. November 26. fell into convulsion fits which had almost killed him.
Gilbert Sheldon, Lord Bishop of London, gave Dr Pell the parsonage of Laindon cum Basildon in the hundreds of Essex (they call it kill-priest, sarcastically); and king Charles the second gave him the parsonage of Fobbing, four miles distant. Both are of the value of two hundred pounds per annum (or so accounted); but the Doctor was a most shiftless man as to worldly affairs, and his tenants and relations cheated him of the profits and kept him so indigent that he lacked necessaries, even paper and ink, and he had not sixpence in his purse when he died, and was buried by the charity of Dr Richard Busby and Dr Sharp, Rector of St Giles in the fields and Dean of Norwich, who ordered his body to lie in a vault belonging to the Rector (the price of vault-burial is 10)
I could not persuade him to make a will; so his books and MSS fell by administratorship to Captain Raven, his son-in-law
His son (John) is a Justice of Peace in New York and lives well. He intended to have gone over to him.
This learned person died in St Giles' parish aforesaid at the house of Mr Cothorne the reader in Dyot Street on Saturday December 12, 1685, between 4 and 5 p.m. Dr Busby, schoolmaster of Westminster, bought all his books and papers of Captain Raven, among which is the last thing he wrote (which he did at my earnest request) viz. THE TABLES, which are according to his promise in the last line of his printed tables of squares and cubes (if desired) and which Sir Cyril Wych (then President of the Royal Society) did license for the press. There only wants a leaf or two for the explanation of the use of them, which his death has prevented. Sir Cyril Wych, only, knows the use of them. I do (imperfectly) remember something of his discourse of them, viz. whereas some questions are capable of several answers, by the help of these tables it might be discovered how many, and no more, solutions, or answers, might be given.
I desired Mr Theodore Haak, his old acquaintance, to make some additions to this short collection of memoirs of him, but he has done nothing.
He died of a broken heart.
Dr Whistler invited Dr Pell to his house in (1682), which the doctor liked and accepted of, loving good cheer and good liquor, which the other did also; where eating and drinking too much, was the cause of shortening his days.
Dr Pell had a brother, a surgeon and practitioner in physic, who purchased an estate of the natives of New York and when he died he left it to his nephew John Pell, only son of the Doctor. It was a great estate eight miles broad and -- miles long (ask Capt Raven).
He had three or four daughters.
From John Aubrey's Brief Lives. (Edited by R Barber, Boydell Press, 1982)
John Aubrey (1626 - 1695) made a collection of notes, anecdotes and gossip about his contemporaries which are gathered together under the title Brief Lives. He was friendly with many of the English scientists of the day including many of the earliest members of the Royal Society. He gives a lively, and not necessarily accurate, account of some of the mathematicians in our archive.